Former Keller Williams and RE/MAX real estate agent Holly Pasut has known all the highs and lows of her profession. After a business acquaintance’s request landed her in federal prison and stripped her of her license, Pasut, 62, is using her experience as a cautionary tale for other Realtors.
Pasut, who had been a top real estate agent in Charlotte, North Carolina, for nearly two decades before federal investigators brought charges in the so-called Operation Wax House mortgage fraud case in 2013, said she truly didn’t know she was getting into something wrong or, much less, illegal. After a real estate acquaintance offered to find a buyer for a long-standing property in exchange for a consulting fee, Pasut paid the invoice he sent her after the house had closed.
But as she would later discover, the man who asked for a fee was using it for illicit activities and, when the FBI started investigating real estate fraud after the housing market crash of 2008, Pasut was one of more than 100 people arrested in what became known as Operation Wax House, a complicated mortgage fraud scheme operating from 2005 to 2012 that involved brokers, lawyers, homebuyers and former Carolina Panthers football player Jimmy Hitchcock.
Now that she’s out of prison but no longer able to practice real estate, Pasut has made a living out of sharing her experience — she published a book, was a speaker at a recent National Association of Realtors conference and regularly tours the country with presentations at universities, podcasts and business events.
“By the time I started to connect some dots, it was too late because I had been involved in some of the transactions,” Pasut, who will be starting a speaking tour with Fidelity National Title Group in January, told Inman. “What I learned was that even though you were not intending or trying to commit fraud, ignorance is not an excuse. You can still be involved in fraud without knowing that you’re involved in fraud.”
Pasut, who would ultimately plead guilty to mortgage fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy charges in 2013, knows she made a series of poor decisions — the price of which was losing her real estate license and serving 13 months in a Virginia federal prison. She said that while losing her livelihood was hard, the most difficult part was the shame in three kids and former colleagues see her go to prison. The speaking engagements, she feels, are a way to prevent other agents from making the same mistakes.
Pasut advises agents to know exactly who they’re dealing with — never get referrals from people you don’t know well or are certain of their identity as an agent. She also says that it is easy for agents to agree to favors in order to move a sale along or just help a client out — favors that could ultimately land them in serious trouble.
“In the industry, agents are often going so fast that they’re not asking enough questions,” Pasut said. “What people don’t realize is that even if you’re not trying to do anything wrong, if somebody else in the circle is, you can be brought into it.”
Since Pasut began talking about her experiences, she’s received a fair share of backlash. People have accused her of knowing what she was doing while criticizing her for continuing on as an industry advisor. Pasut told Inman it would have been easier for her to stay away from the industry altogether, but that she wants to use what happened to her — losing her source of income and reputation, having to put her life on hold while in prison — to help other people.
“If I can prevent them from doing something foolish like I did, it will at least save the pain of their kids,” Pasut said.
Pasut will be touring the country with Fidelity National Title Group from January until the end of the 2019. Her book, A Strange Path To Freedom, is available on Amazon.