WASHINGTON — A Northern California real estate investor has agreed to plead guilty  for his role in conspiracies to rig bids and commit mail fraud at public real  estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California, the Department of Justice  announced.

Felony charges were filed today in the U.S. District Court for the  Northern District of California in Oakland against Charles Gonzales, of Alamo, Calif.   Including  Gonzales, a total of 44 individuals have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead  guilty as a result of the department’s ongoing antitrust investigations into  bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern  California.

According to court documents, beginning as early as April  2009 until about October 2010, Gonzales conspired with others not to bid  against one another, and instead to designate a winning bidder to obtain  selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Alameda  County, Calif.  Gonzales was also charged  with conspiring to commit mail fraud by fraudulently acquiring title to  selected Alameda County properties sold at public auctions and making and  receiving payoffs and diverting money to co-conspirators that would have gone  to mortgage holders and others by holding second, private auctions open only to  members of the conspiracy.  The department  said that the selected properties were then awarded to the conspirators who  submitted the highest bids in the second, private auctions.  The private auctions often took place at or  near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held.

“The Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation has resulted in charges  against 44 individuals for their roles in schemes that defraud distressed  homeowners and lenders,” said, Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge  of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “The division will continue to work with its  law enforcement partners to vigorously protect competition at the local level.”

The department said that the primary purpose of the  conspiracies was to suppress and restrain competition and to conceal payoffs in  order to obtain selected real estate offered at Alameda County public  foreclosure auctions at non-competitive prices.  When real estate properties are sold at the  auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage and other debt attached  to the property, with remaining proceeds, if any, paid to the homeowner.  According to court documents, the conspirators  paid and received money that otherwise would have gone to pay off the mortgage  and other holders of debt secured by the properties, and, in some cases, the  defaulting homeowner.

“The symbolism of holding illegitimate and fraudulent  private auctions near a courthouse is deplorable,” said David J. Johnson, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Office.  “The justice system will continue to prevail  in this ongoing investigation pursuing bid rigging and fraud at public  foreclosure auctions.”

A violation of the Sherman Act carries a maximum penalty of  10 years in prison and a $1 million fine for individuals.  The maximum fine for the Sherman Act charges  may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss  suffered by the victim if either amount is greater than $1 million.  A count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud  carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.  The government can also seek to forfeit the  proceeds earned from participating in the conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

Today’s charges are the latest filed by the department in  its ongoing investigation into bid rigging and fraud at public real estate  foreclosure auctions in San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties,  Calif.  These investigations are being  conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San  Francisco Office.  Anyone with  information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate  foreclosure auctions should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco  Office at 415-934-5300, or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.

Today’s charges were brought in  connection with the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.  The task force was established to wage an  aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute  financial crimes.  With more than 20  federal agencies, 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices and state and local partners, it  is the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory  agencies ever assembled to combat fraud.  Since its formation, the task force has made  great strides in facilitating increased investigation and prosecution of  financial crimes; enhancing coordination and cooperation among federal, state  and local authorities; addressing discrimination in the lending and financial  markets and conducting outreach to the public, victims, financial institutions  and other organizations.  Over the past  three fiscal years, the Justice Department has filed nearly 10,000 financial  fraud cases against nearly 15,000 defendants, including more than 2,900  mortgage fraud defendants.  For more  information on the task force, please visit