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Financial Crime: Turns out a real estate guru peddling the ‘deal of a lifetime’ was really a fraud, prosecutors say

If someone promises you the “deal of a lifetime,” it’s probably not a good investment.

That’s what finance guru Matthew Onofrio, who sold a program claiming to have cracked the code on commercial real estate, promised inexperienced investors looking to strike it rich. But prosecutors say it was all a fraud aimed at lining Onofrio’s pockets.

The 31-year-old native of Eau Claire, Wis., appeared on investing podcasts and at conferences with a compelling tale. He said he had walked away from a promising career as a nurse anesthetist when he discovered a real estate strategy known as triple net investing, through which he had amassed a portfolio worth over $150 million in just three years.

But between 2020 and August of this year, federal prosecutors in Minnesota say, Onofrio had ripped off numerous banks to the tune of $35 million by roping investors into a complex web of quick-flip real estate sales, fraudulent mortgage applications and doctored appraisals.

In a statement, Onofrio’s attorney, Marsh Halberg, said none of his client’s investors had been hurt financially by their investments.

“The defense is aware of very few, if any, transactions where the investors have suffered actual losses at his time. We believe most of the transactions with Mr. Onofrio still maintain a positive cash flow and /or an increase in the value of the property that was purchased,” Halberg wrote in an email.

A civil suit filed this year involving a radiologist from Puerto Rico named Matthew Hermann, who wanted to get involved in real estate investing with his wife, laid out how Onofrio operated. 

The suit said the pair met at a networking conference in Colorado in 2020 and hit it off while discussing real estate opportunities. Hermann said he was hoping to build up a real estate portfolio that would provide him with enough income that he could stop working.

Hermann said in court papers that Onofrio offered to bring him into “the deal of a lifetime,” involving a commercial property for sale for $6.3 million in Minneapolis. All Hermann had to do was come up with $1.5 million for the down payment.

“Onofrio told Hermann that he won’t get to his goal of leaving his job by buying duplexes. Onofrio told him that ‘this will light gas on the fire of where you need to go’. He told Hermann that this is all about mindset’,” the court documents read.

When Hermann said he didn’t have that kind of money available, Onofrio offered to lend it to him so he could secure a bank loan for the purchase and Hermann agreed, the court filings said. What Onofrio didn’t say was that he had already reached a deal with the owners to buy the building for $4.75 million, not $6.3 million, and that the difference was going into his pocket, the suit claimed.

Hermann was then stuck paying nearly $6,000 a month in loan payments to Onofrio in addition to his bank loan.

“Onofrio pushed Hermann—a novice with real estate—into this purchase with grand promises of the deal of lifetime. The reality, though, was that Onofrio was the one assured to make money on the deal, not Hermann,” the papers read.

Hermann later tried to sell the property and said he found a buyer willing to pay $6.3 million for it, but the deal fell through due to litigation surrounding Onofrio’s loan.

Hermann’s attorney didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

Federal prosecutors described a similar pattern, with Onofrio allegedly placing his own money into investors’ accounts to make their finances look better to lenders, and also fabricating appraisal documents to inflate the value of properties.  

In one deal in 2021, a Minneapolis commercial property was sold three times in just five months, passing through more than one business entity Onofrio controlled. By the end of the string of transactions, the price had jumped by nearly $4 million, business publication Finance & Commerce reported.

Onofrio is charged with three counts of bank fraud and prosecutors say they are seeking the forfeiture of $35 million seized during the course of the investigation.      

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