Not long ago, Genevieve Salvatore was a successful real estate lawyer and a local activist who championed food allergy awareness, prompted by her son’s own peanut allergies.

She was also a rising star in Milford politics. As chair of the city’s economic development commission, she launched a recycling initiative and supported the immediate renovation at Jonathan Law High School. In 2009, she nabbed the Democratic mayoral nomination. Dannel Malloy, before he became governor, attended a fundraiser for her. She was endorsed by the New Haven Register, whose editorial page called her an “enthusiastic and quick learner” and a “fresh alternative” to the Republican incumbent.

“I would like to enter this race not as a politician, but as a concerned citizen,” Salvatore said at her first news conference as a candidate.

Not only did she lose the mayor’s race by a wide margin, but on Nov. 19 she continued a stunning fall from grace when she pleaded guilty to taking part in a multi-million dollar mortgage fraud scheme. The plea came two years after she was accused of violating attorney ethics rules for her handling of two $1 million real estate deals. A grievance complaint led to an investigation which found that she had violated rules of professional conduct by giving legal advice to a real estate investor and implied that she was representing his interests, even though she was not.

Salvatore faced a potential suspension of her law license, but the case was put on hold for a bigger problem. Last February, Salvatore and three other lawyers were arrested and indicted for taking part in the unrelated, widespread scheme that involved 50 mortgages for multi-family homes obtained by fraud over a two-year period.

According to court records, the four attorneys participated in a plan to defraud lenders by falsifying mortgage applications and deed records. Officials said the scheme left rental properties throughout New Haven abandoned, and resulted in losses of more than $10 million to the lenders.

In the indictments of Salvatore, and three New Haven attorneys — Lawrence Dressler, Jeffrey Weisman, and Bradford Rieger — it was revealed that the group worked out deals with sellers of rental properties, who agreed to accept lower sale prices than what was listed on the sales contracts.

The group also enlisted straw buyers, including a group of New York City corrections officers, to apply for mortgages and obtain loans that were much higher than what the sellers were paid. To get the loans, the group submitted forms that included inflated values, falsified monthly income and fictitious leases.

The lawyers and other participants were then paid from the proceeds, prosecutors said, with Salvatore’s take estimated at $2.5 million for the 13 closings she handled from December 2006 to February 2007.

According to charging documents filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Huang, the buyers did not make any deposits or down payments for the properties they purchased. Instead, Salvatore and her six co-conspirators used some of the fraudulently obtained mortgage proceeds to cover the down payments and deposits.

Initially, Salvatore denied she had broken the law after her arrest. But under the plea agreement that was reached on Nov. 19, prosecutors agreed to limit the exposure to prison Salvatore will face at just under five years, instead of the 20 years Salvatore would face if convicted if she went to trial.

“She’s known about the possibility of charges for a couple of years now,” Huang told U.S. Magistrate Holly Fitzsimmons at a plea hearing on Nov. 19. He did not object to Salvatore being released on $100,000 non-surety bond, but recommended she do no real estate closings while the case is pending.

‘Pretty Serious’

The first of the four lawyers to be prosecuted, Rieger, was sentenced to two years in prison for his handling of 19 transactions. He was also disbarred for 12 years. Dressler and Wiesman have also pleaded to related charges and await sentencing. Disciplinary case against them are expected, but have not yet been filed.

When Salvatore is sentenced on Feb. 18, the guidelines listed in the plea agreement will only serve as recommendations. Defense attorney Andrew Bowman, of Westport, is expected to argue for a downward departure from those guidelines when Salvatore appears for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Janet Hall in New Haven. Salvatore did not respond to an email message seeking comment. Bowman also did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Karyl Carrasquilla, assistant disciplinary counsel for the state, said the plea that was entered by Salvatore will result in two actions by her office as soon as a conviction is recorded. First, she said she will move to proceed with a hearing for discipline before a Superior Court judge on the 2009 disciplinary case. Then, Carrasquilla said, she will seek sanctions against Salvatore for the unrelated, criminal case. “Fraud, I would say, is pretty serious,” Carrasquilla said.

She said under the rules of professional conduct, an automatic violation is triggered whenever an attorney is convicted of a felony. Together, Carrasquilla said, the outcome could be “suspension or disbarment.”

Mark Dubois, the former Chief Disciplinary Counsel and president-elect of the Connecticut Bar Association, has represented Salvatore in her pending disciplinary case. He declined to discuss the allegation of ethics violations against her, but he indicated the disciplinary case would be defended vigorously. “If tried, the disciplinary case is one I win any day of the week,” Dubois said, “She is a good lawyer and a good person.”

Her law firm website says she has a law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law and holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Hartford. It also states that she’s a former deputy clerk of court in Connecticut and is admitted to practice Indian Law before the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court.

“Genevieve has co-authored several articles, regularly lectures and has a number of published decisions,” he website says. “She is a member of the Construction Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association, as well as the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. She serves on the Board of Managers for the Woodruff Family YMCA [and] is an advisor of the GetinTouch Foundation.”

Back in 2002, Salvatore was interviewed by the New York Times. At the time, she worked for the New York law firm of Peckar & Abramson. She and her husband, Stephen, then a manager for a construction company, rented a house in Westport and both commuted to work in Manhattan five days a week. Salvatore told the newspaper they would be moving to Milford. “Money goes a lot further in Milford,” she said.