Real estate investor Terry Tolar of Gulfport had no idea he was doing anything illegal at public auctions.
He found out about a year ago when he got a formal invitation to sit down with the FBI, he said. The federal government was accusing the retired Allstate agent of conspiring to rig bids on foreclosed houses.
Tolar and Kevin Moore are the latest real estate investors in South Mississippi to be charged with conspiring to rig bids at public auctions held at county courthouses, mostly in Gulfport and Biloxi, where mortgage holders unload foreclosed real estate.
Tolar said he started buying foreclosed houses years ago at the auctions. He mostly ran into the same buyers at all the auctions.
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"Who's getting this house today?" was a common refrain among buyers. Sometimes, attendees would accept $100, $200 or $300 for not bidding on a house someone wanted.
But the U.S. Attorney's Office says buyers were holding secret meetings to rig the bids. They would decide who was going to bid on a house and how much the others would be paid for not bidding.
But Tolar said all this happened right out in the open. Attorneys representing mortgage companies at the auctions knew what was going on, he said, and would even ask, “Y'all figured out who's getting this one today?"
Tolar told the Sun Herald: “What's so bizarre about this whole circumstance is that attorneys in town said there was nothing wrong with it. Everyone knew. This was totally bizarre that it ended up being something wrong with it."
" . . . I guarantee you it's happening right now all over the United States.”
Two brothers, Shannon and Jason Boykin of Jackson County, have already pleaded guilty to conspiring to rig bids at auctions between May 2012 and March 2017.
The Boykins admitted they spent more than $1.5 million on properties and payoffs to keep others from bidding on their selections.
Tolar and Kevin Moore were charged this week in U.S. District Court in Gulfport with conspiracy in the bid-rigging case, both in the 2012-17 time frame.
Tolar said he's still buying and selling properties, but he no longer talks with others at auctions about who will be bidding on what.
He said he plans to plead guilty to the charge, but worries about his reputation.