Director Of Community Development Of Non-Profit Corporation And Six Others Indicted For Bribery Concerning Programs Receiving Federal Funds
For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Nevada
LAS VEGAS, Nev. – The former Director of Community Development for the National Community Stabilization Trust (NCST), a non-profit Nevada corporation created in 2008 in response to the national mortgage-housing foreclosure crisis, and four of six co-defendants made their initial appearances in federal court Wednesday on charges related to a bribery scheme involving NCST homes, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Steven W. Myhre of the District of Nevada and Special Agent in Charge James Todak of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General (HUD-OIG).
The 14-count indictment, filed under seal on Sept. 26, was unsealed Wednesday in federal court. The indictment charges Sergio Barajas, 50, of Chino, Calif.; Alan Cassell, 47, of Chula Vista, Calif.; Elena Millner, 40, of Boerne, Texas; Benjamin Stuelke, 35, of Anaheim, Calif.; Michelle Acosta, aka Michelle Mullens, 33, of Anaheim Hills, Calif.; Art Acosta, 55, of Anaheim Hills, Calif.; and Ernesto Garcia, 45, of Upland, Calif., with conspiracy to commit bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds. Stuelke and Garcia are also charged with bank fraud. Defendants Barajas, Cassell, Michelle and Art Acosta, and Garcia made their initial appearances in court before U.S. District Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach.
According to the indictment, from October 2010 to September 2015, Barajas, in his role as Director of Community Development, was involved in the approval of non-profits to participate in the NCST First Look Program and in the determination of which non-profit was ultimately awarded NCST homes, as well as provided oversight of the resale of NCST homes to ensure compliance with NCST and Neighborhood Stabilization Program guidelines. The NCST received more than $10,000 of federal grants during each 12 month fiscal year that Barajas served as the Director of Community Development.
The indictment alleges that Cassell, Millner, Stuelke, Michelle and Art Acosta, and Garcia bribed Barajas with monetary payment in exchange for his influence at the NCST in the First Look approval process, access to NCST homes, and oversight over the resale of NCST homes. As alleged in the indictment, Cassell, d/b/a Heartland Coalition and Ignition Ventures, paid Barajas approximately $185,025 in exchange for receiving approximately 626 NCST foreclosures and made approximately $2.8 million from the resale of those homes. Millner and Art Acosta, d/b/a Positive Housing Equations and Alliance for Revitalized Communities, allegedly paid Barajas approximately $149,828 in exchange for receiving approximately 167 NCST homes and made approximately $1.3 million from the resale of those homes. Stuelke, the C.F.O. of HomeStrong USA, wrote checks in the total amount of $34,800 to Barajas. Stuelke also wrote three checks totaling $193,763.13 to Garcia, d/b/a Fine Line Investments, as the purported realtor of three NCST home sale transactions. Garcia then wrote checks to Art and Michelle Acosta, d/b/a 33 LLC, who ultimately wrote checks to Barajas all in an effort to conceal payment to Barajas for three NCST properties awarded to HomeStrong USA.
The indictment further alleges that Stuelke and Garcia provided false information to lenders who funded the purchase of NCST homes resold by HomeStrong USA.
The maximum statutory penalty is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy to commit bribery concerning programs receiving Federal funds and 30 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine for bank fraud. In addition, each defendant faces a criminal forfeiture money judgment: Barajas in the amount of $422,969; Cassell in the amount of $1.2 million; Millner in the amount of $3 million; Stuelke in the amount of $6 million; Michelle Acosta in the amount of $250,000; Art Acosta in the amount of $1.15 million; and Garcia in the amount of $193,000.
The investigation is being conducted by HUD-OIG. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lisa Cartier-Giroux and Patrick Burns.
The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are merely accusations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Updated October 5, 2017