Attorney sentenced in long-running mortgage fraud scam

Attorney Bradford Barneys admitted he had put a stain on the legal profession as he was sentenced Thursday to 30 months in prison for conspiring with convicted con artist Timothy Burke to defraud distressed homeowners in a long-running scam.

The 51-year-old resident of Odenton, Md., had come to Connecticut in 2010 to start anew after being disbarred from practicing law in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and New York for violating the rules of professional conduct. But he said the first person he ran into was Burke, and before he knew it, he was deeply involved in the criminal enterprise.

"There came a point where I knew what was going on," he said as he stood before U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea for sentencing in federal court in Hartford. "I was struggling to survive, and I didn't have the will to disengage with him."

There's no excuse, said Barneys, who turned to apologize to two victims who attended the sentencing hearing.

He had pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and one count of tax evasion. He will have until Oct. 19 to turn himself in and will be on supervised release for three years following his prison term. During that time, he will not be allowed to practice law or apply for reinstatement of his license or engage in real estate transactions except those involving himself or his wife.

Barneys and Burke were the subject of a series of stories published by The Day beginning in November 2014. The scheme involved homeowners in Bridgeport, New London, Griswold, Ledyard, Waterbury, Plymouth, Portland, Andover, New Haven and West Haven. The Day's investigation found more than a half-dozen cases in which Burke and his associates sent out mass mailings to people whose homes were in foreclosure, then allegedly bilked them out of thousands of dollars after promising to purchase their homes and free them of their mortgages.

The government launched its own investigation and found that "scores" of people had been victimized, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney David T. Huang. Burke was sentenced in April to nine years in prison.

According to the government, over a period of five years, Burke had targeted homeowners who were facing foreclosure and told them he would purchase their homes and pay off their mortgages. Burke told the victims negotiating with the lenders would take time and that they could ignore any notices regarding foreclosure. Burke then rented the properties while falsely representing to tenants that he was the owner. 

Burke collected rent from tenants and used the funds for his own benefit. He failed to negotiate with the homeowners' mortgage lenders or pay expenses associated with the homes, including the mortgages and property taxes, and he failed to pay any rental income he was collecting to the homeowners. Many of the properties Burke purportedly purchased were ultimately foreclosed upon by the mortgage lender

Barneys met with both homeowner and tenant victims, with and without Burke, to explain, sign and witness documents such as quitclaim deeds, management agreements, indemnification agreements, third party authorizations and leases.

Barneys assured the victims of the legitimacy of the deals after they became concerned and evicted tenants who were late on their rent, according to the government. When they threatened legal action, he worked to settle the cases.

"Put another way, Barneys was a bluffer, buffer, and snuffer," the prosecutor wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

He was paid more than $72,000 in fees and other monies for his participation in the fraud, according to the government. Judge Shea ordered him to repay $36,675.

The government said its investigation further revealed that Barneys engaged in a separate fraud scheme similar to the scheme that Burke engineered. Barneys assisted two Maryland residents in purchasing a commercial property located on Boston Avenue in Bridgeport. He then acted as a purported landlord for the property, executed long-term lease agreements with at least two tenants, and collected tens of thousands of dollars of rent without the actual owners' knowledge or authorization and kept the funds for his own use. He was not charged criminally in that case. 

The judge said he didn't understand what had happened to Barneys, who doesn't appear to have a substance abuse or gambling problem. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., Barneys came from a good home, did well in school, attended an Ivy League college (Cornell) and got his law degree from SUNY at Buffalo. At one point he worked as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice, reaching, the judge said, "what some lawyers would call the pinnacle of the profession." He left the job after just one year.

Federal sentencing guidelines called for 24 to 30 months in prison. Shea imposed the maximum while commenting that in some ways, the case almost merited going above the guidelines.

"As an attorney, you took an oath to uphold and defend the law," the judge said. "You are a guardian of the law, and when a guardian of the law violates it, a serious punishment is required."

Barneys' attorney, Francis  L. O'Reilly of Southport, said Barneys would be appealing the sentence because it involved more prison time than Barneys agreed to serve without having the right of appeal when entering his guilty plea. Barneys' other attorney, Sefton Brown of Bridgeport, had asked the judge to impose a sentence of a year and a day. His lawyers also had objected to the government's request for an enhanced sentence due to the vulnerability of the victims. Shea ruled in favor of the government, saying that due to their desperate financial situations, the victims found it substantially more difficult than others to avoid the scam.

O'Reilly said he also didn't understand why his client had gone astray. He did tell the judge that Barneys had suffered trauma in his life. In 1969, O'Reilly said, Barneys' 18-month-old brother died. When Barneys was 25, another brother was shot and killed in New York City, and nobody was ever charged with the crime. A third brother died of AIDS in 1994, O'Reilly said.

Huang, the prosecutor, said one of the horrible things about the crimes in which Barneys had participated was the slow dawning of realization by the victims, who had walked out of Barneys office in relief, that they had been scammed.

"Mr. Barneys traded in the good work that the vast majority of lawyers do," Huang said.

k.florin@theday.com

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For The Day's investigative series on the housing scam, visit bit.ly/housingscam.

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