Debt settlement firm pleads guilty in first CFPB referral

An example of a solicitation letter is shown to describe charges being brought against the debt settlement company Mission Settlement Agency, at a news conference in New York, May 7, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond NEW YORK (Reuters) - A debt settlement company and its operator on Tuesday pleaded guilty in New York to conspiracy charges of mail and wire fraud, capping the first criminal case referred to U.S. prosecutors by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Michael Levitis and his company, Mission Settlement Agency, entered the guilty pleas in Manhattan federal court, less than a year after prosecutors announced charges over a scheme that they said victimized more than 1,200 people across the country from 2009 to 2013. At the time, the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called it the first criminal referral from the CFPB, an agency created as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. Prosecutors accused Mission of touting its ability to help customers reduce their credit card and other debt. Instead, the company charged excessive fees while failing to aid its clients. "I'm here to take responsibility for my actions," said Levitis, 37, before U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe. "I took advantage of people who were struggling financially and caused them further hardship." His mother, Eva Levitis, who was Mission Settlement's president, entered a guilty plea on behalf of the company. She was not criminally charged. Michael Levitis and Mission Settlement both agreed to forfeit $2.2 million as part of the plea agreement. Levitis faces up to 10 years in prison, while the company faces an additional fine of up to $4.39 million. Four other former Mission employees previously have pleaded guilty; charges against a fifth remain pending. Levitis, a suspended lawyer, was previously sentenced in August 2011 to three years of probation and fined $15,000 for lying to federal agents during an investigation into former New York State Senator Carl Kruger, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2011. Charles Ross, a lawyer for Levitis, told Gardephe on Tuesday that the CFPB has indicated it plans to dismiss a parallel civil lawsuit against Levitis and Mission in light of the forfeiture agreement with prosecutors. Samuel Gilford, a spokesman for the CFPB, declined to comment on the status of the agency's case. He also declined to disclose how many other cases the agency had referred to federal prosecutors. "The CFPB takes its statutory obligation to refer criminal conduct seriously, and we do it in appropriate circumstances," Gilford said. Levitis pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His maximum prison sentence is five years on each count. Mission pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. "Michael Levitis and his company, Mission Settlement Agency, preyed on the desperation of financially struggling people across the country," Bharara said in a statement following the guilty pleas. The case is U.S. v. Mission Settlement Agency, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 13-cr-j00327. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)