4 Accused of $925K Catholic School Mortgage Scam

Two Long Island couples were arrested for allegedly scamming nearly $540,000 from Bank of America by illegally selling a foreclosed property to Sacred Heart Academy, a Catholic all-girls high school in Hempstead.

Sofia Atias, 44, and her 50-year-old husband Joseph Atias, of Great Neck, pleaded not guilty to charges of bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud Tuesday at Central Islip federal court along with alleged co-conspirators Nicholas Pellegrini, 51, and his 34-year-old wife, Paula Berckhoff, of Garden City.

“Sofia Atias falsely reported that she had no ability to repay the outstanding debt on her mortgage and line of credit, when in truth and in fact, as the defendant well knew and believed, Sacred Heart Academy had offered to pay $925,000,” prosecutors alleged in court papers.

Sofia Atias had defaulted on about $750,000 in a mortgage and line of credit on a piece of property on Cathedral Avenue in Hempstead in 2011. She and her husband, along with Pellegrini, a real estate attorney, allegedly made an agreement with Bank of America for what’s known as a short sale of the property, as an alternative to foreclosure. In a short sale, the bank agrees to sell the property for less than the owner’s outstanding debt if the owner cannot afford to repay the mortgage.

Under the bank’s agreement, the property was sold for $480,000 to Jefferson Real Property Corporation, whose secretary and treasurer was Pellegrini’s wife, Paula Berckhoff.

In their short sale contract, Sofia Atias and Paula Berckhoff “falsely represented that neither would receive any proceeds from the transaction,” the court papers said. Jefferson Real Property Corporation finalized the sale of the property in March 2012 to the academy, which had planned on using the property for a new athletic field for its students.

All four defendants were released on $600,000 bail, according to a spokesman for the federal prosecutors. If convicted, each faces up to 30 years in prison, plus restitution.

An attorney for Pellegrini and Berckhoff, Stephen Scaring of Garden City, declined to comment. The attorney for the Atiases, Robert LaRusso of Mineola, could not be reached for comment.