Anthony G. Symmes rose to the top of the heap in Butte County as a Chico-based developer, builder and civic leader, but he took a hard fall because he got mixed up with Garret Griffith Gililland III, for whom mortgage fraud was a way of life.
Straw buyers recruited by Gililland and his minions paid inflated prices for Symmes homes and acquired 100 percent financing with phony appraisals and bogus income documents ginned up by Gililland's crew. Symmes kicked back to Gililland or an associate the amount exceeding the true value of the homes. Gililland took care of the buyers.
Symmes, 61, was sentenced Friday in federal court to a month less than three years in prison on a guilty plea to conspiring to commit mail fraud and money laundering. He admitted engaging in a multimillion-dollar plot that picked the pocket of lenders for up to $7 million.
The time behind bars was dramatically slashed because of Symmes' substantial assistance in the government's pursuit and prosecution of his fellow crooks. When first contacted by FBI Special Agent Mark Roberts, Symmes admitted his role in the massive swindle and agreed to help the agent.
Defense attorney Richard Pachter asked for a sentence of 18 months, calling his client's cooperation "extraordinary," but that was a non-starter for U.S. District Judge Edward J. Garcia.
While describing Symmes as full of genuine remorse and enthusiasm for his role as an informant, Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Carlberg said his office's policy prevented him from recommending less than the 35-month term, a 50 percent drop from the 70-month low end of advisory sentencing guidelines.
"I recognize his cooperation has been really remarkable," Garcia assured Pachter. But, the judge said, Symmes' crimes are so egregious that even the guideline calculation doesn't reflect their seriousness, "and that bothers me."
Garcia said he doesn't recall cutting prison time by more than half in his 28 years on the federal bench. He appeared to come as close in this case as he ever has. He ordered Symmes to surrender May 22 to begin serving his sentence.
Dressed in an expensive gray business suit, the gregarious, ruddy-faced man with a full head of thick white hair told the judge: "I am truly sorry for my actions. I know I let everybody down. With the grace of God, I will one day be a productive citizen again."
Symmes has already shelled out $4 million to a section of the U.S. Justice Department that administers asset forfeitures and laundered money. Those funds are available to victim-lenders who submit valid claims.
Symmes had been a builder of single-family homes in and around Chico for 25 years before the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Butte County District Attorney's Office ran him to ground. He has a business degree from UC Berkeley and is a CPA. He earned a degree from McGeorge School of Law and passed the bar exam, but doesn't practice. He is a state-licensed real estate broker and general contractor.
In August 2006 the real estate market was starting its nose-dive, and Symmes had 62 new homes he couldn't unload. He was approached by Gililland, an unlicensed real estate and mortgage broker also based in Chico a man with a plan.
Until he fled the country just ahead of the posse in 2008, Gililland, 30, was an insider at Roseville-based Loomis Wealth Solutions. The now-defunct organization and its founder, Lawrence Leland "Lee" Loomis, are the targets of a years-long probe of a complex scheme that allegedly ripped off investors, homeowners and lenders for more than $100 million.
Neither has been charged in a criminal matter, and Loomis has denied wrongdoing to federal agents and through his attorney. Both, however, along with Loomis' father-in-law, John Hagener, stand accused in a Securities and Exchange Commission civil complaint of a $10 million investment fraud. The SEC is proposing a trial to commence in early December. Gililland was captured in Spain and extradited to Sacramento, where he remains in jail.
He too became an informant for the government and pleaded guilty almost a year ago to mail fraud and money laundering, admitting his critical role in fraudulently securing $21 million in home loans. He is scheduled to be sentenced by Garcia on July 20.