Palm Beach Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock is taking no chances.
As a federal grand jury indicted three high-volume investors for allegedly rigging auctions, Bock and her staff audited Palm Beach County’s procedures to look for vulnerabilities in the judicial foreclosure sales process.
Prosecutors didn’t allege a system failure or breach in the technology used by Palm Beach Circuit Court to host online real estate auctions. The indictment instead claimed investors Avi Stern, Christopher Graeve and Stuart Hankin conspired to rig bids submitted for judicial sales from at least January 2012 to June 2015.
Bock and her South Florida counterpart, Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Ruvin, took precautionary measures. The inspector general in the Palm Beach County Clerk’s Office reevaluated all procedures to ensure compliance with statutory requirements, while the clerk worked with its auction software vendor, Grant Street Group, to search for potential weak spots. Miami-Dade undertook an internal audit.
“Our job is to create a fair and level playing field for anybody that enters the justice system,” Bock said. “There are many, many safeguards built in.”
Online foreclosure auctions are fairly new to Florida, one of the states hardest hit in the 2008 housing market collapse. At the height of the crisis, tens of thousands of new foreclosures flooded the courts each month. In 2009, lenders filed more than 64,000 foreclosure suits in Miami-Dade County alone, and by the end 2010, nearly 82,000 cases were pending in circuit court. In Broward County, judges juggled about 29,000 new lawsuits in 2010, and the backlog ballooned to more 43,000 pending cases by July 2012.
The caseload forced administrators to seek more efficient ways to handle judicial sales, which once took place on courthouse steps with cash transactions.
“I’ll tell you there was collusion back then,” said Bock. “If you just look at white-collar crime … anywhere the potential exists for making money, you’re always going to find somebody who’s going to try to the game the system.”
Palm Beach County adopted an electronic platform in 2013, allowing bidders to participate in online auctions. Participants were required to register, identify themselves, submit deposits of 5 percent of their highest intended bid and agree to forfeit deposits if they violated auction rules.
But prosecutors allege three investors found a way to circumvent the system by working together offline to control bids and ensure they submitted winning offers.
“These are the first indictments related to bid rigging in foreclosure auctions filed in Florida by the Justice Department’s antitrust division,” the DOJ said in a release issued Nov. 3.
Attorneys for all three defendants said the investors purchased auctioned properties at fair prices on an open market and committed no crimes.