Trial Begins for East Bay Landlord Accused of Rigging Foreclosure Auctions

Defense attorneys complain tenants and protesters outside the courthouse may have 'tainted' jurors.

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Michael Marr (right) and his attorneys outside Oakland's federal courthouse this afternoon.
  • Michael Marr (right) and his attorneys outside Oakland's federal courthouse this afternoon.

The trial of Michael Marr and two of his business associates, Gregory Casorso and Javier Sanchez, began today at a federal courthouse in Oakland. Marr, Casorso, and Sanchez are accused of rigging public auctions of foreclosed homes during the Great Recession.

See also: Oakland's Biggest Landlord is Fighting For His Life in Federal Court
See also: FBI Hid Surveillance Devices Around Alameda County Courthouse

Starting in 2008, Marr's company, Community Realty, purchased hundreds of single family homes at auctions held on courthouse steps in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. In the process, Marr became one of the biggest landlords in Oakland.

His companies own numerous single family homes and small apartment buildings in East Oakland's flatlands. The feds allege that Marr and his associates conspired to suppress prices, thereby cheating banks and the public of the true value of the properties they acquired.

Marr was indicted by the feds two and half years ago.

Since then, some of Marr's tenants, and activists with the group ACCE, have alleged that Marr's properties are not well maintained, and that Marr has hit tenants with unsustainable rent increases.

Outside the federal courthouse this morning, protesters, including some of Marr's current and former tenants, set up a table and passed out fliers calling him a "slumlord" and accusing him of participating wrongful foreclosures and evictions.

The protesters briefly spoke to and handed some of the potential jurors fliers. A marshal guarding the entrance of the court told the protesters to relocate. The marshal told the Express later this afternoon that the protesters didn't seem to be aware they were interacting with potential members of the jury and they immediately relocated when told to do so.

But Martha Boersch, one of Marr's attorneys, said the protesters actions "could taint the case."

During jury selection, which took all day today, Boersch told U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton and several dozen potential jurors in the courtroom that she is "very concerned about the impact the protesters may have had."

Only a few potential jurors said they read the fliers or listened to the protesters long enough to understand anything. Most of the jurors said they didn't see the protesters, and don't have prior knowledge about the foreclosure auctions and the case.

By the end of the day the final members of the jury were selected. Opening statements begin tomorrow.

Marr's attorneys have argued in court briefings that their client and his business associates did not engage in a conspiracy to suppress prices at the foreclosure auctions. Instead, they competed. And at other times they combined with one another to make bids they could not otherwise make. The defense has also submitted analysis to the court claiming that prices at the auctions were not lower during the time of the alleged conspiracy.

The government is expected to counter this with evidence including secret audio recordings taken by FBI agents on the courthouse steps during the auctions, as well as testimony from other men who participated in the alleged bid rigging conspiracy, and also economic analysis showing price suppression.

Check back for updates over the next several weeks.

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