Because bankruptcy lawyer Donna L. Harris knows what happens to troubled financial institutions that need cash quickly, she wasn't surprised when a salesman from the Vacation Ownership Group floated what seemed like a good deal on her time share.
If she sent the VO Group $27,000 quickly, she would not have to pay the rest of the $40,000 she owed on the mortgage on her Wyndham time share in San Francisco.
"I was interested," she told jurors in federal court in Camden Tuesday. "I knew that banks were actually doing this."
However, the deal didn't turn out the way she thought it would.
"The point of the transaction was to save me money, not cost me more," said Harris, a partner in Pinckney, Harris & Weidinger in Wilmington.
Harris was called to testify as a victim in the alleged $2.4 million scheme to defraud 225 time-share owners, many of them elderly. Adam and Ashley Lacerda, owners of the VO Group, now known as VO Financial Corp. in Egg Harbor Township, are charged in the case, along with three employees.
In 2009, 2010, and 2011, federal prosecutors say, the defendants tricked victims into believing that the VO Group would help them cancel or reduce their time-share mortgages. Victims sent the VO Group the money, but the Lacerdas did not follow through, keeping much of the money themselves.
To Harris, the proposed deal made sense.
When VO Group salesman Joseph Saxon contacted her in July 2010, the economy was still reeling. Liquidity and cash-flow problems abounded, and Harris, as a bankruptcy lawyer, would understand that better than most.
Also, Saxon's deal was repeated by Robert Klein, Adam Lacerda's pseudonym, according to previous testimony.
Harris knew that a bank might be willing to accept $27,000 instead of $40,000 just to get funds quickly. "They wanted liquidity and they wanted the cash," she told the jury.
Instead of paying off her mortgage, her check, dated Aug. 4, 2010, was used to buy another, less prestigious time share in Florida, one that she never knew she was purchasing, Harris said.
At first, she thought it was a mixup.
Believing that her time share was paid off, she stopped sending the monthly mortgage checks. Meanwhile, she began getting bills for maintenance fees on two properties.
Soon she was being hounded by Wyndham to pay. She called Wyndham. They "were telling me that they didn't know about the VO Group," she testified.
In opening arguments on July 22, the defense asserted that Adam Lacerda, troubled by high-pressure tactics he had seen as a salesman for Wyndham Property Resorts in Atlantic City, started a company to help time-share owners who had been cheated. He recruited others to help.
The defense said that any VO Group problems were caused by "rogue" salesmen such as Saxon.
On May 31, Saxon pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman, who is presiding over the time-share trial, could sentence him to 20 years. Saxon may testify in the trial.
Saxon left VO Group shortly after the FBI raided the firm's offices on Nov. 4, 2010, according to earlier testimony.
The same month, as Harris' situation worsened and her credit rating was declining, she tried but failed to reach Saxon and Klein at the VO Group, instead speaking to Ian Resnick, another defendant.
Harris said that Resnick told her that Saxon had caused problems for lots of people. Resnick sent her paperwork that advised her to go into foreclosure to resolve the San Francisco time share. Instead, she testified, she made a deal with Wyndham.
Resnick's attorney, Michael Riley, pressed Harris to admit that Resnick had tried to help her. "I don't agree that he was helpful," Harris responded. "You don't not pay on a valid loan and let it go into foreclosure."
In cross-examination, Harris said that in 2012, after she sent a letter threatening litigation, the VO Group sent her $29,000 - the $27,000 plus more to cover the maintenance fees. Harris wasn't made whole - there were special privileges that she lost as a result of her missed payments.
Harris said nothing about the other defendants in the case - Lacerda's wife, Ashley; Genevieve Manzoni, 47, of Florida; and Joseph Diventi, 32, of Somers Point, N.J.
Also testifying Tuesday morning was a disabled distribution manager from Stroudsburg, Pa.
Like Harris, John Uzialko sent the VO Group money to pay off his Wyndham time-share mortgage, but that didn't happen. Instead, he faced the same situation as Harris.
Uzialko said he spoke with Lacerda both as "Adam Lacerda" and as "Robert Klein," as well as Ashley Lacerda and Brian Corley, an insider turned government witness who testified Monday.
"I was quite mad, and I had some choice words for all of them," Uzialko said. "I cursed them all out."
Ultimately, he settled with Wyndham, losing some perks in the process. By 2012, the VO Group had refunded his money.