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Broken Trust 

A mortgage salesman was preying on Amish families. When they fought back, his company sued them for slander.

The first time the loan salesman knocked on his door late one November night, Mr. Miller wasn't buying. He didn't trust the stranger who sat chatting at his kitchen table, trying to sell him a loan. He had been tricked once before, by a builder, and didn't want to be swindled again.

Miller, who declined to provide his first name, is not a cynical man. He is a quiet craftsman, with dirt-ingrained fingers and a beard long enough to stroke. He earns his living building stairways. In the close-knit Old Order Amish community around Middlefield, where he has lived for nearly five decades, his whole world is based on trust.

A safety net of neighbors and friends surrounds him. If his family's house burns down, the neighbors will rebuild it. If he needs a ride to Richfield, someone will provide it. If a man gives his word on a business deal, it's worth more than a lawyer's paper.

So when the salesman made his pitch, Miller was cautious. Miller's 22-year-old son wanted a $61,000 loan to buy land for his first house. Richard Haig, a loan officer for World Home Lending Corp., convinced the son that he also needed $120,000 more to build a house. But the kid couldn't afford it. He needed his parents' help.

A week after Miller said no the first time, Haig came back again with the son. Miller softened. He remembered how his own father had co-signed the loan for his first house. He decided to take a chance.

"I just thought, well, maybe it's okay," he explains.

He signed the papers, even though Haig never explained how the deal would work, Miller says. Miller assumed that his house would be used as a backup if his son couldn't pay. He didn't bother reading the fine print.

"I told him, I'm a dummy. I can't read all this stuff tonight. So I have to trust," Miller says. In his world, there's no such thing as deception.

But World Home Lending seems to operate by different rules. Haig sold Miller a $119,000 mortgage equity line, then used $62,000 of that to pad his son's credit report, making it looked as if the kid had more assets, according to the family's lawyer. Father and son had no idea what was happening. By the time it was over, the Millers had a combined debt of about $216,000.

And that was just the beginning. World Home would lure other Amish families into loans they didn't understand. But when two men tried to fight back, the company tried to silence them.

A welcome sign in Middlefield claims that it's the largest Amish settlement in the world. The scenery features rolling green hills dotted with white wildflowers and farms that could have been lifted from the pages of Anne of Green Gables. Drivers pass rows of corn and signs advertising cheese and maple syrup. In the neighboring town of Mesopotamia, men in straw hats still ride in horse-drawn buggies to the general store.

But they also withdraw money from the ATM at the gas station and worry about rising interest rates. When a young man is ready to build a house or add a shop or a barn, he gets a loan from a local bank. Many of these institutions have been in business for decades and have earned the respect and faith of the Amish.

Into this world came Solon-based World Home Lending, which started winning customers in Geauga County, Ashtabula, and surrounding areas last year by offering interest rates that sounded too good to be true.

"When a new outfit comes along and says, 'Hey, everyone, I can drop all your interest rates by 2 or 3 percent . . . that's sort of going to be a hook for just about anyone," says lawyer Robert Ohly.

It hooked Mr. Byler, a jolly, impossibly muscular farmer with a booming baritone. He heard about World Home from a friend, who boasted of low rates and fast service. Byler -- whose work includes construction, fence-building, and horse-shoeing --wanted to refinance his 100-acre farm and sell lots from another 40 acres he'd recently bought.

Byler talked with Haig about a low interest rate that would save him "thousands and thousands" of dollars, the farmer says. Haig also offered to take care of the mortgage paperwork, so that Byler's new land could be sold. It would all be done in two weeks, the salesman promised.

In January, Byler filled out a loan application, but, he claims, he never got the mandatory written estimate of what the deal would cost. Months passed, and nothing happened.

Byler called his bank and learned that Haig had never completed the paperwork. Meanwhile, Amish families eager to buy Byler's properties were getting antsy. They couldn't close on the sales until Haig did his work.

"After three months, I'm now getting stressed out," Byler says. But Haig wouldn't return his calls, he says, and when they'd finally connect, the salesman kept saying he was working on it.

Finally, after Byler threatened to take his business elsewhere, Haig showed up at his house in April. This time, he said that he could save Byler $40,000. He tried to sell him a line of credit to pay off some debt. But as Byler flipped through the paperwork, he caught a glimpse of a hidden fee. He says he pressed Haig to tell him how much the final cost would be. Haig hedged. Finally, he admitted the total fees would be $21,000 for a $400,000 line of credit, more than double what Byler's bank would charge.

Byler was livid. "I was born at night, but not last night," he says.

Byler decided to stay with his original bank, where he paid only about $9,000 in closing costs.

Still, that wasn't the end of his troubles. One of the men who bought Byler's property got a loan from World Home; it took the company four months to transfer the money to Byler.

By the end, Byler was so frustrated that he threatened to go to World Home's office in his barn boots and roll on the floor.

His quaint threat seemed to work. "Then I got my money."

All World Home deals with the Middlefield Amish have to go through Levi Miller, a straight-talking farmer and community leader.

He's in charge of issuing certificates for Amish Mutual Aid -- the community's equivalent to homeowner's insurance. So when Richard Haig needed proof of his customer's insurance, he had to visit Levi.

"Richard told me he has never found a group of people that are as trusting as the Amish," Levi said in a deposition. (He declined Scene's interview requests.)

Levi wrote the first certificate for World Home in April 2004. Eventually, he learned of at least 60 loans the company had sold to the Amish. As the months passed, he began to question the suspiciously low interest rates that customers were being offered.

According to lawyer Ohly, Haig would show people a pageful of numbers, then circle the column with the lowest rate. Haig didn't explain that the rate was a concoction based on extra monthly payments over many years, Ohly claims.

When Levi began asking questions, he found that many World Home customers had never received a written estimate of their fees -- as required by federal law. "It was never explained to them, so that is outside the law," he says in his deposition.

He worried that World Home was taking advantage of Amish naïveté.

"For over 120 years, the Amish people had a good relationship with the local banking industry as to guiding us and showing us what the best interest was -- what our best interest was," he says. "And now we have somebody coming down here, shaking the industry upside down."

Levi began discussing the problems with friends and church members. He talked to Middlefield Bank and government officials. Finally, a deacon asked him to put a notice in the church bulletin warning people about World Home.

The notice appeared in the April 6 edition of Der Gemeinde Brief, next to a message about a school fund-raiser and an ad for "wheeling sap buckets." It brought up interest rates, high appraisals, and inflated credit. Levi urged readers to look at the list of questions for mortgage lenders available from the Ohio Department of Commerce.

"Don't be misled," Levi urged his neighbors. But some didn't listen.

A month later, Ohly put a message of his own in Good News, a Middlefield advertiser. He'd been hearing horror stories from clients like Byler, so he listed a series of tactics people should watch out for with World Home -- suspiciously low interest rates, high fees, late-night house calls.

"Everyone has a right to make a living," Ohly wrote. "However, nobody has the right to take advantage of others to make a living."

Word spread quickly. The Geauga County Maple Leaf picked up on the story. County officials erected red-and-yellow billboards, warning people about predatory lenders. A few World Home customers canceled their deals.

Then the company fought back. In June, World Home sued Levi Miller and Robert Ohly for slander, libel, and $750,000 in damages.

World Home's lawsuit states that Ohly and Miller falsely accused the company of "predatory lending practices and taking advantage of others." It also denies the allegations Ohly and Levi Miller made in their newspaper ads.

"The reason we sued Ohly and Miller is because they were making disparaging remarks about World Home Lending, which simply weren't true," says World Home's lawyer, Dieter Domanovic. "We can't have people running around making untruthful statements."

He has a point: Byler and Miller have no paperwork to back their claims that Haig misled them. And though the Amish are considered straight-up people, they wouldn't be the first to claim falsely that their loans weren't properly explained.

"They know exactly what they're being charged," Domanovic says.

Miller's allegation that he was tricked into signing up for a mortgage-equity line is absurd, Domanovic says. He argues that Miller offered to take out a loan to cover his son's down payment. How could someone sign for a loan and approve the transfer of money to his son without knowing what he was doing?

"Richard said he was there four times," says Domanovic. "What did the father think he was there for?"

As for the columns of numbers showing low interest rates, Domanovic says that was a payment plan, "merely an illustration, and it has nothing to do with any loan that's offered." The loan documents clearly state the final interest rate and fees that will be charged, he says.

"It's pretty clear on the form. If someone chose not to understand, that may be something that they want to do," he says.

Finally, he says that if Byler was quoted $21,000 in fees, it was not just a broker's fee. It would be the total of all the appraisal, title, county, and escrow fees. Another bank might charge less, he says, but it might also be charging a higher interest rate.

"You have to look at the total package," Domanovic says.

But whether you believe the Amish or not, it's equally difficult to believe Haig. His legal history paints a man whose qualifications for work in finance are dubious.

Haig -- who was born Richard Alhajj, but changed his name after September 11 -- has been sued for foreclosure at least four times in the last three years. All but one of the cases was ultimately dropped, but it appears that he waited till the last minute to pay up. He recently settled a suit brought by Provident Bank, which said that he owed about $84,000 on a loan. He also owes more than $5,400 in back taxes on the Pepper Pike house listed in his name. (He did not respond to Scene's interview requests.)

Meanwhile, his business experience seems to consist of drifting from one unsuccessful venture to the next. According to court documents, he was once general manager of sales and marketing at Today's Lifestyle Homes, a building company in Warrensville Heights. But two years ago, after leaving the job, he was sued for not paying $12,000 on a credit card he said he used for company expenses.

He also once worked for a mortgage broker called A-1 Financial Services. In 2003, he sued that company, alleging that his former employer was withholding $67,000 in commissions. The case was later settled.

World Home is Haig's latest venture. On its website, the company claims to be in its second decade of operation. But according to the Secretary of State's office, it was incorporated only two years ago. Before that, it was known as Haig Builders, a company formed in 1997, which, according to Domanovic, did not sell mortgages.

Martin Liston is named as president of World Home. It's not clear whether he has previous lending experience. He referred all questions to Domanovic, who says he doesn't know.

But none of this seems to matter to the lawyer.

First, he insists, Haig could not have deceived Amish customers, because no one ever complained. Besides, mortgage documents are so simple, he says, that they couldn't possibly be misleading.

"They're very clear. There's nothing underhanded about it," he says.

Haig's financial history is irrelevant, Domanovic further argues. "When you're involved in a lot of activities, there are some people who don't always like what you've done," he says. "He's never done anything illegal."

Domanovic doesn't see any irony in Haig selling loans while simultaneously defaulting on his own mortgage. "I'm sure that you have some shortages in your wallet every once in a while," the lawyer says. "As far as I know, everyone's been paid."

Byler, for one, is not convinced. After hearing of Haig's history -- and aware that he's still selling loans to the Amish -- he's appalled. "He has got more guts than a Christmas turkey," the farmer declares.

Domanovic argues that Levi Miller and Robert Ohly slandered World Home because they both have a stake in a competing company.

But the competition he fears is the Geauga Amish Loan Fund, a nonprofit church program that pools money from the congregation, then gives loans to young families.

Levi Miller has an unpaid position on the board of directors, and Ohly does legal and title work for the board. To them, the idea of the church fund competing with World Home is ludicrous.

"I don't think it's in competition whatsoever with World Home Lending," Ohly says. "It's basically meant to provide funds among church members, to encourage the younger generation to be able to buy land affordably in Geauga County."

According to Levi, the fund has a waiting list. There isn't even enough money to serve congregants, much less take customers from World Home.

"We are happy for anybody that can get a decent, honest loan anywhere they can get it," Levi said in his deposition.

As the libel suit wends its way through the courts, World Home is still selling in Northeast Ohio. Geauga County Commissioner Craig Albert says that he contacted the state attorney general's office after reading about the lawsuit in the local paper. He thinks the state is looking into the company, along with the Geauga County prosecutor. Neither office responded to Scene's request for comment.

Christia Alou White, director of public affairs for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, says that the attorney general's office is considering whether the allegations have merit, but she is not aware of any formal charges.

None of this has stopped Amish families from buying loans from Richard Haig.

"We're still increasing our business," Domanovic says.

Meanwhile, people like Miller are struggling to understand what has happened. As debt in the community grows, some might have trouble selling their homes, Ohly says. But he's sure there won't be a rash of foreclosures. The Amish don't let their neighbors lose their homes. They take care of each other, even in the face of broken trust.

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