By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Dean Brewer quickly crosses the Courtyard by Marriott parking lot, glancing repeatedly over his right shoulder toward the hotel lobby.
"There's a photographer in there," he says nervously. "No photographs."
Brewer continues at a quick pace into an alley between two office buildings. He has a story to tell, but he doesn't want anybody seeing him spin his line. Plenty of people are angry with him; the last thing he wants is his photo plastered on the walls of his enemies.
The part-time weightlifting enthusiast and full-time deal maker scopes out what seems to be a perfect spot for an interview: a steel staircase hidden away on the north side of the old Arizona Heart Institute building. He turns and stops.
"What do you want to know?" he asks.
Eyes hidden behind thick-rimmed sunglasses, dressed in standard entrepreneurial issue--dark, wool suit, parti-colored tie in a fractured-glass pattern, portable telephone in the right coat pocket, black loafers--Brewer appears oddly at ease in the clandestine rendezvous.
And why shouldn't he be? Shady maneuvering has been a way of life for Brewer, the 40-year-old former president and co-owner of Charter Title Agency, which collapsed in October amid allegations of multimillion-dollar misappropriation.
Brewer's career as a mortgage broker and escrow agent has been highlighted by a series of financial firestorms that has scarred thousands of people across the country. Long before the Charter fiasco, the failure of Brewer's California mortgage company formed the focus of what has turned into a four-year federal criminal investigation.
Borrowing heavily, diverting corporate funds, taking advantage of lax government oversight and ultimately turning to the courts for protection, Brewer has been a living embodiment of the 1980s, me-first corporate lifestyle.
A money-magnet touch with investors. A teddy bear personality. A hard-to-resist smile that says, "Come on, lighten up--let's party!" It's a powerful combination, and Brewer has used it while adhering to Charlie Keating's core financial principle: Cash flow is all that matters. Few companies provide as hefty a flow of cash, with as little government regulation, as title and escrow firms. Few firms have squandered money so blatantly as Charter Title.
Now, seven weeks after state banking regulators noticed $8.1 million was missing from Charter Title's escrow accounts, Brewer says he wants to put the firm's problems behind him. He turns the alleyway interview into an informal, and incomplete, confession.
Brewer says he expects to be slapped with criminal charges stemming from Charter Title's failure. He says he's hired the best defense attorney in town--Tom Henze, who engineered James Robison's stunning acquittal in the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.
"The people that did what was wrong are going to hang," Brewer says.
But that gloomy prediction doesn't dampen Brewer's love of a good laugh, especially when the conversation turns to Charter Title's disappearing millions. Brewer has no idea how much money is gone. But he says he has a pretty good idea of what happened.
"I'm not admitting any guilt, but in the position I was in, I was entrusted by people to guard their escrow funds," he says. "And a problem arose."
What's the problem?
"Money is missing," he explains with a hearty laugh. @rule:
@body:Charter Title's demise is no laughing matter to thousands of investors. When the state banking department finally seized Charter on October 25--after years of inaction and incompetent regulation--the dreams and financial stability of families across Arizona were thrown into turmoil.
The damage cuts across society. The victims range from wealthy real estate investors to working-class families struggling to refinance or purchase their homes. Now they face the prospect of losing their investments. Charter's collapse has stalled mortgage payments, and thousands of property-tax bills homeowners thought had been paid are in limbo.
Ron Sturdy is one of the larger losers. The $76,651 check Charter Title issued to him on October 21 is worthless.
Sturdy thought when he received the check that it meant he had successfully concluded an investment in a Mesa residential real estate project. Four days after Charter Title wrote the check, Sturdy's bank informed him that the banking department had seized Charter Title and frozen its accounts.
"That leaves me with a check for $76,651 that is essentially no good," Sturdy says.
More than 4,000 investors have money at stake with Charter Title. Some, like Todd and Rhonda Blatti of Phoenix, have only a few thousand dollars on the table.
"I was kind of in shock," says Todd Blatti, who learned that $2,400 he paid to Charter Title on October 18 for mortgage refinancing had been seized by the state. "Once I signed the papers, I thought I would be free and clear in a day or two."
Escrow companies certainly try to convince the public they are upstanding and honest. Their job is essentially to be middlemen in financial transactions. The only time most people will deal with a title and escrow company is when they purchase property.
It is the escrow company that holds the down payment when a buyer and seller are negotiating final terms. Escrow companies also handle mortgage payoffs and refinancings. Millions of dollars flow through the doors of even a small escrow company--one such as Charter Title--on any given day.