Investigation Has Yielded 15 Guilty Pleas to Date
A former New York-based tax liens company executive pleaded guilty today for his role in a conspiracy to rig bids at auctions conducted by New Jersey municipalities for the sale of tax liens, the Department of Justice announced.
Vinaya K. Jessani, of New York City, entered a guilty plea in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark to felony charges filed today. Under the plea agreement, Jessani has agreed to cooperate with the department’s ongoing investigation.
According to the charge, from at least as early as 1994 until as late as February 2009, Jessani, a former senior vice president who supervised the purchasing of municipal tax liens at auctions in New Jersey for the company he worked for, participated in a conspiracy to rig bids at auctions for the sale of municipal tax liens in New Jersey by agreeing to, and instructing others to, allocate among certain bidders which liens each would bid on. The department said that Jessani and those under his supervision submitted bids in accordance with the agreements and purchased tax liens at collusive and non-competitive interest rates.
“Today’s guilty plea demonstrates the Antitrust Division’s continuing effort to prosecute those who manipulate the competitive process in order to harm home and property owners,” said Brent Snyder, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division’s criminal enforcement program. “The division will continue to be vigilant in rooting out conspiracies that harm already distressed property owners.”
The department said that the primary purpose of the conspiracy was to suppress and restrain competition in order to obtain selected municipal tax liens offered at public auctions at non-competitive interest rates. When the owner of real property fails to pay taxes on that property, the municipality in which the property is located may attach a lien for the amount of the unpaid taxes. If the taxes remain unpaid after a waiting period, the lien may be sold at auction. New Jersey state law requires that investors bid on the interest rate delinquent property owners will pay upon redemption. By law, the bid opens at 18 percent interest and, through a competitive bidding process, can be driven down to zero percent. If a lien remains unpaid after a certain period of time, the investor who purchased the lien may begin foreclosure proceedings against the property to which the lien is attached.
According to court documents, the conspiracy permitted the conspirators to purchase tax liens with limited competition and each conspirator was able to obtain liens which earned a higher interest rate. Property owners were therefore made to pay higher interest on their tax debts than they would have paid had their liens been purchased in open and honest competition, the department said.
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 a Sherman Act violation may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims if either amount is greater than the $1 million statutory maximum.
Today’s plea is the 15th guilty plea resulting from an ongoing investigation into bid rigging or fraud related to municipal tax lien auctions. Including Jessani, 12 individuals and three companies have pleaded guilty. Additionally, four individuals and two entities have been indicted for their roles in the conspiracy to rig bids at tax lien auctions.
Today’s case was done 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’s 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.