By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - A suspended Miami-area mayor and prominent Haitian activist was duped by her business partner into recruiting straw buyers to lend their names to fraudulent mortgage applications that netted at least $8 million in loans, her attorneys told a jury on Tuesday.
Marie Lucie Tondreau, who became the first female Haitian-American mayor of North Miami when she was elected in 2013, is standing trial in federal court in Miami after being indicted in May on six counts of wire fraud.
She faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of a scheme prosecutors say was carried out from 2005 to 2008, before she took office. She is suspended from her post while the case is pending.
Prosecutors said Tondreau paid relatives and listeners of her radio show up to $5,000 each to take part in the scheme that ended with her renting out at least 20 properties and using the proceeds for clothes and other purchases.
“When Ms. Tondreau took to the airwaves to promote this mortgage company she brought a sense of credibility,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lois Foster-Steers.
But Tondreau's attorneys said her advocacy for Haitian immigrants and notoriety as a critic of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made her the ideal target for a mortgage company owner looking to secure financing with fabricated information.
“Lucie was helping people come up in life, she wasn't helping in fraud,” defense attorney Michael Davis said during his opening statement.
The leader of the scheme, Karl Oreste, pleaded guilty to seven wire fraud charges in July and is due to be sentenced in early 2015. He is expected to testify against Tondreau.
She is one of nearly a half dozen Miami-area mayors charged with an array of crimes over the past two years.
(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Eric Beech)