Federal prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of $90,385 that was seized last year from a Kenmore debt collector who is the subject of a government investigation into fraud allegations.
The money was seized from a residence on Hamilton Boulevard on May 7 by Homeland Security investigators, according to court papers filed by the U.S Attorney’s Office on Thursday.
Prosecutors allege that Mark M. Miller of the Kenmore address owned and operated several businesses, “which engaged in a wire fraud scheme related to unlawful debt collection activities involving victims across the United States,” according to court papers.
The forfeiture is a civil action, not criminal. No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the investigation, law enforcement officials confirmed on Friday, adding that the probe is continuing.
Miller, 47, denies any allegations of wrongdoing and is contesting the government’s seizure of his money, said two attorneys who represent him, Frank LoTempio III and Cheryl Meyers Buth.
Joseph C. Bella III “is absolutely not a member of any organized crime,” attorney Thomas J. Eoannou said. “I think the government is trying to connect dots that presently don’t exist.”
“Mark Miller has been fighting to get his property back since armed agents came to his home and seized his property almost 11 months ago,” Buth said Friday. “The government also seized several vehicles from him, and we contested those seizures, and the vehicles were returned to him.”
“This is a civil forfeiture case at this point. No criminal charges have been filed,” Buth added.
According to a 51-page document filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Clare Kane, agents from Homeland Security Investigations are investigating the alleged fraud.
She identified Miller’s businesses as American Elite Contractors, American Elite Recovery, AME Professionals, East Coast Business Solutions and Oak Barnes and Associates.
The prosecutor said Miller also runs a company that does legitimate business on roofing and construction projects.
The award is one of the largest of its kind ever made in Western New York.
“A debt collector may not use any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt,” Kane said in court papers.
Miller's companies engaged in “illegal debt collection practices,” including the use of “profane” language, “threats and scare tactics,” the government alleged in its court papers.
Some of the debt collectors who are under investigation made bogus threats that debtors would be arrested or sued if they did not make immediate payments, the court papers alleged.
Federal agents are investigating $2,798,278 worth of transactions between Miller’s companies and six different financial institutions in the Buffalo area between September 2017 and May 2020, the government said.
The investigation is the latest of several to be made public in recent years targeting alleged fraud crimes committed by local debt collection companies.
The National Consumer Law Center has called Buffalo “an epicenter of unscrupulous debt collection practices.”
In March 2019, Miller was sentenced in North Tonawanda City Court to nine months at the Niagara County Jail for driving while intoxicated and second-degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, according to police records.
In the federal court papers, authorities included transcripts of conversations between Miller – calling from the jail – and several debt collectors working for him.
The court papers also cited the experiences of several people Miller allegedly pursued for debt payments, including a disabled individual from Washington state.
The individual, identified as “C.B,” received a phone call in December 2018 from a woman named “Katie” at American Elite, one of Miller’s companies, claiming the person owed $600. “Katie,” the court papers stated, told the individual “that he/she … would face charges for bank fraud, internet fraud, and writing bad checks if he/she did not pay money to American Elite immediately.”
The disabled individual did not recall ever writing a bad check, investigators stated.
When “Katie” failed at collecting the alleged debt, another collector named “David Hampton” of American Elite began calling, the papers stated.
The court papers said Hampton “was abrasive, threatening, screamed at him/her, and brought him/her to tears. C.B. said that David Hampton claimed that unless money was paid, he would file a lawsuit against C.B. for a much higher balance than currently owed, garnish his/her disability wages, send him/her to jail, and send someone to show up at his/her home immediately after the phone call.”
Hampton eventually succeeded in getting a bank card number from the individual “to set up a payment plan which would collect the majority of his/her disability wages during this time period,” the court papers stated.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer last May authorized agents to search two homes – including Miller's residence – on Hamilton Boulevard, one home on Moore Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda and a business address in the 1500 block of Kenmore Avenue.
Kane and Homeland Security officials declined to comment on the case Friday when contacted by The News.