Collateral damage: Innocent victims of the mortgage crisis

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by BYRON HARRIS / WFAA-TV

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wfaa.com

Posted on February 16, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 17 at 4:13 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

ROCKWALL — They might be called the foot soldiers of the mortgage meltdown.

They cut the lawns, change the locks, clean and maintain the vacant, foreclosed homes that litter Texas neighborhoods.

Like many small businesses, they operate on a shoestring. And dozens of them have been driven to financial ruin because they've never been paid.

Banks have no way of maintaining all the homes they now own. They contract so-called "property preservation" firms to manage the work.

The preservation companies, in turn, find small businesses to actually perform the labor. Those mom-and-pop concerns depend on payment from the contractors to stay in business.

But News 8 has found that from coast-to-coast, the mom-and-pops are suffering because the contractors who promised to pay them never have.

Gary Lacy of Rockwall is one of dozens of the small business owners nationwide who have been ruined by someone else's mortgage crisis.

He stands in front of a foreclosed house in Rowlett, similar to hundreds he signed contracts to maintain last year. He says he performed his part of the bargain — but that Nomad Preservation, the Rockwall company that hired him, has owed him $29,000 since last April.

"You're on a 90-day payout," Lacy explained. "It's very important that you get paid within the 90 days because all the expenses — the mowing, the driving, the paying your crew — all that comes out of your pocket."

Chris Brown of Temple is afraid he's going to lose his pickup truck (the only asset he has left) because he hasn't been paid for field service work for four months.

Thumbing through a stack of unpaid invoices, he says Nomad owes him $17,000. He remembers every job he did for Nomad, because he had to take "before-and-after" pictures of every property he worked on  to prove he fulfilled his part of the bargain.

Nomad was supposed to e-mail the proof up to Bank of America, which owned the properties, and the money was supposed to come back to Brown.

News 8 has received photos and invoices of properties in Florida and Colorado, and talked to contractors in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, who say they have also not been paid by Nomad.

The company has been evicted from its offices in Rockwall. Its president and secretary are no longer in Texas.

Hussien Farouk "Sam" El-Haje, 47, is listed in Nevada corporate records as Nomad's president. He was born near Detroit, where his family still lives.

Police records in Michigan show he has served time for embezzlement and forgery, and has been labeled a habitual criminal by the state.

Beth Young, a former Nomad employee who worked in the accounting department, says at its peak, Nomad was handling a lot of money. "A good realistic average was a good $300,000 a week," she said.

While Young, Chris Brown and Gary Lacey were going unpaid, their was no lack of cash apparent in El-Haje's lifestyle last year. He assembled a stable of luxury cars, including two Corvettes, a Hummer, a Lamborghini, a Cadillac and a Viper, according to several former employees.

Company credit card bills obtained by News 8 show that in seven months last year, El-Haje charged more than $35,000 to auto parts companies, a car dealer, a furniture store, jewelry and gold stores, clothing stores and limousine companies.

El-Haje would not talk to News 8, saying he is under a temporary restraining order.

But while he is subject to a TRO, that it does not restrain him from talking to the media.

The TRO stems from his disputed takeover of KDS, another Rockwall preservation firm, early last year, which is in court in Rockwall County. The TRO prevents El-Haje from selling assets belonging to KDS.

In the same lawsuit, El-Haje says because of KDS's lingering debts, Bank of America won't pay Nomad.

Gary Lacey and other contractors say they've tried unsuccessfully to take up their case with Bank of America. "I tried to go to Bank of America and say 'Hey, this guy's [Nomad]  not paying,' and that door was pretty much slammed."

Bank of America declined to be interviewed on television. In a response to written questions, the bank says its subsidiary, Bank of America Field Services (BAC Field Services),  employs more than 80 property preservation firms across the country. It says it has no direct relationships with subcontractors such as Gary Lacey and Chris Brown, but that it has "met its financial obligations to Nomad....and KDS."

BAC Field Services says complaints about payment from subcontractors are referred back to the contractors, but they are noted.

The company says its work with Nomad has been decreasing, but that it still employs Nomad for a "small" amount of work in Pennsylvania.

BAC Field Services says it was unaware of Hussien El-Haje's criminal background.

BAC Field Services' parent company, Bank of America, received $45 billion in taxpayer funds under the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP). The Bank has paid that money back, with interest.

The Bank says no TARP money went to real estate contractors.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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