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Lawsuit claims wife helped Petaluma real estate agent accused of mortgage fraud


A Tiburon man is suing Santa Ana-based Stearns Lending Inc., claiming a former loan agent in the firm's Rohnert Park office sent him and other clients to a refinancing specialist who defrauded them out of thousands of dollars in fees.

Robert J. Gilles said the former loan officer, Heidi Marks, referred him to former Petaluma real estate agent Miguel Lopez, who is the subject of an ongoing fraud investigation by the state Attorney General.

Unbeknownst to Gilles was that Lopez — also known as Miguel Angel Lopez-Soleta — is Marks' husband.

Gilles alleges in small claims papers filed in Marin County Superior Court that Marks and Lopez were engaged in criminal fraud with Lopez's Petaluma company, Mortgage Modifiers. He claims Stearns is liable for his losses, which include about $2,000 in fees to Lopez and $6,750 in bank penalties and other costs.

"I was assured I was dealing with Stearns Lending during the entire time the fraud was taking place," said Gilles, who had been seeking help in refinancing his mother's house in Novato.

Stearns' general counsel, Monika McCarthy, denied the firm had any affiliation with Mortgage Modifiers or that Gilles was ever a Stearns customer.

McCarthy said Marks, 43, is no longer a company employee. And she said she is unaware of other complaints related to customers being sent to Mortgage Modifiers for refinance services.

"It's Stearns' policy not to make referrals," McCarthy said.

Neither Lopez nor Marks could be reached by phone Wednesday at their Ormsby Lane home. Lopez's attorney, Jason Nelson, said his client is under investigation by the state but has not been charged. He said any complaints about his services should be resolved in civil court.

"We are confident he will be cleared of criminal wrongdoing," Nelson said. "At this point they are only allegations."

Lopez, 41, is alleged to have failed to deliver on promises to refinance underwater homeowners by negotiating directly with banks. He's accused of charging an upfront fee of $1,995 in violation of state law and operating with a revoked real estate license.

A Department of Justice official said Wednesday that the number of victims had risen to about 90 people as the investigation continues. Spokeswoman Michelle Gregory did not say when formal charged would be filed. Agents raided Lopez's home office in April, seizing paperwork and computer hard drives.

Meanwhile, people including Gilles have been filing small claims suits in Marin and Sonoma counties. A dozen Sonoma County cases have been filed in the past year, including three since late April. The Marin number was unknown.

Sergio Albor, a Sebastopol pool contractor, is among the latest to sue. He said a neighbor told him about Lopez last year and he went to him for help with two loan modifications.

Nothing happened after he said he paid his fees in advance. He reported Lopez to the police and state Department of Real Estate, but has yet to see a penny of his money, he said.

Albor said he was surprised that Lopez wasn't already charged and arrested.

"I thought he was in jail already," Albor said. "People like that shouldn't be out there."

Gilles said he contacted Stearns Lending last September on behalf of his mother, who wanted to refinance her home.

He said he talked to Marks, who insisted her "mortgage specialist" Miguel Lopez come out and explain some options, according to the suit.

Lopez visited a few days later and promised a refinance deal for an upfront fee of $2,000, the suit said.

After months of inaction, Gilles said he requested a refund and Lopez agreed to give the money back but he never did.

Gilles said in the suit his attempts to contact Marks were "difficult and strained" so he turned to the company's customer relations department in Santa Ana.

An official told him Lopez had nothing to do with Stearns Lending and the firm was not responsible for Marks' actions, the suit said.

The suit also alleges that after Stearns learned of the "criminal enterprise," it failed to alert many other customers who became victims of Lopez.

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)