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Tucson lawyer Jeffrey Greenberg pleaded guilty in a $33-million real estate scheme in California that a federal prosecutor described as “extraordinary fraud.”

Greenberg, 66, and Courtland Gettel, 42, of Coronado, California, pleaded guilty May 17 to charges of conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California.

The charges stem from a scam in which they took out $33.6 million in loans against multi-million dollar homes in La Jolla and Del Mar and then forged documents to fool more lenders into believing the homes were debt-free, the Department of Justice said in a news release.

At the San Diego County Recorder’s Office, they forged real estate lien releases and other records, “wreaking havoc on the chain of title for these homes,” the DOJ said. They then defaulted on the loans and caused millions of dollars in losses to lenders.

Greenberg also pleaded guilty to what the DOJ called an “equally massive fraud” in Tucson, where he worked for Gettel’s real estate investment company, known as both Conix Inc. and Variant Commercial Real Estate.

The company bought homes from banks or distressed homeowners, refurbished them, and sold them for a profit, according to court documents. The company also bought real estate debt from mortgage lenders and serviced the loans.

Through the company, Greenberg and his co-conspirators obtained tens of millions of dollars from a real estate financing firm. Instead of using the money to refurbish properties as they agreed to do, they used the money for their own benefit, the DOJ said.

In both schemes, Greenberg funneled the money through his attorney-trust bank accounts and into other bank accounts.

The tangled web of transactions described in court documents included Gettel and another person moving to California to open an office and then working with Greenberg to borrow millions of dollars to buy and refinance properties.

They then created hundreds of corporations and limited liability companies to shield assets and disguise who was involved in the transactions.

For instance, they created Apartment Consulting and Renovation in May 2013 and defrauded Doral Bank of $3.6 million by filing false invoices for work that was never completed. Six months later, they created Texas Rehab Specialist and submitted $2.9 million in false invoices to Doral Bank for construction that was never completed.

“Wealth and privilege will not insulate anyone from aggressive prosecution for their crimes,” U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy said in the news release. “These defendants thought they could hide behind their status to pull off an extraordinary fraud — but as this case demonstrates, I am devoted to making sure the playing field is level and all criminals are held accountable.”

“The defendants in this case used their professional business and legal experience to feed their greed,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge, Eric S. Birnbaum. “The FBI is committed to pursuing those who engage in fraudulent schemes that line their pockets at the expense of others.”

Greenberg began practicing law in Arizona in 1983 and does not have any record of disciplinary action with the State Bar of Arizona.

The state bar has an open investigation of Greenberg in connection with the issues raised in the federal court case, said spokesman Rick DeBruhl.

DeBruhl could not comment on Greenberg’s investigation, but said in terms of process, the bar can issue an interim suspension or a consent decree if the attorney agrees to sanctions based on a plea in court.

While in Tucson, Greenberg represented Gettel in a lawsuit filed against the owner of the Saguaro Ranch development in the Tortolita Mountains for misrepresenting the development as exclusive, according to a December 2008 story in the Star.

The charge of wire fraud conspiracy has a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The conspiracy charge has a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Aug. 8 before a federal judge in the Southern District of California. In their plea deals, Greenberg and Gettel agreed to forfeit the proceeds of the fraud and pay restitution.

Contact Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com. On Twitter

@CurtTucsonStar.