- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mortgage broker Alma Preciado had just pleaded guilty to embezzlement and fraud when the Montgomery County judge hearing her case remarked, “She’s either going to pay the money back or she’s going to jail for a very long time.”

Roger Vales, 62, a retired federal worker sitting in the courtroom gallery, had waited four years for this moment. He and his wife, Lourdes, lost $350,000 of their retirement savings through an investment deal brokered by Preciado in 2005.

“It destroyed us,” Mr. Vales said.

With mortgage fraud rising sharply across the U.S., the couple’s experience offers a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of a deal too good to pass up. “There are probably a thousand people like them in every city,” said Richard Hagar, a mortgage-fraud expert.

The investment at first seemed safe, Mr. Vales said. As Mrs. Vales got ready to leave her job at the Organization of American States, where she had worked for more than 30 years, he said Preciado pitched a way to invest some his wife’s big retirement payout.

Under the deal, the Valeses loaned $350,000 to a borrower Preciado knew who lived in Bethesda. Prosecutors said the loan was supposed to be secured by real estate and repaid within two years, but neither happened.

The money from the loan landed in the bank account of a D.C.-based company called Pidegro LLC, where Preciado was a corporate officer. But the company spent the money then shut down as a big development deal it was working on collapsed in Mexico, according to court records and interviews.

“It was a theft by deception,” Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Hill said at a recent hearing. “He has never gotten back a dime.”

For Preciado, who disputes misleading Mr. Vales, the prospect of jail must have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. She was a successful business owner with her own local radio show and a prominent figure in Maryland Republican politics.

Two poster-sized pictures of Preciado next to former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush adorned the wall in her office, Mr. Hill said. She even was a delegate for Mr. Bush at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.

But Preciado’s mortgage business is closed, she filed for bankruptcy last year and now she finds herself trying to avoid prison. Still, she says that Mr. Vales knew what he was getting into all along.

She also says she was open about her involvement in Pidegro LLC and that she didn’t spend the money, with others controlling the company’s bank account. And Preciado’s lawyer, Jim Shalleck, said the only reason she pleaded guilty last month is because she admitted mishandling about $6,700 in the loan transaction.

Mr. Shalleck said the loan deal was “eyes wide open for everybody” and that Mr. Vales “knew it wasn’t secured.” But Mr. Vales said he never would have given so much money to a person he never met without collateral.

Circuit Judge Michael Algeo, who is overseeing Preciado’s criminal case, said he found Preciado’s explanation hard to believe at a recent restitution hearing. He called her “a flat-out liar” and “our own little Montgomery County Bernie Madoff.”

With her sentencing pending next month and prosecutors calling for Preciado to pay $350,000 in restitution, the judge also warned, “We have a spot for her if she can’t.”

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