Man of many names target of civil suits

Gary Craig Staff writer
06/08/2011

Anthony Cerame is a man of many names.

Most of them are unusual; he’s fond of Anthony Shablacone.

Some are juvenile — he has signed documents as Joseph Damifino — and some don’t make much sense. According to court records, he has assumed the name Alphonse Portadori because it reminded him of an outhouse.

With all of these names, Cerame, who has lived recently in Ontario and Monroe counties and has an office in Gates, portrays himself as an expert in “distressed property” real estate. In the past year, he has been in court with three different lawsuits against him, and court records and testimony have detailed his various aliases.

What’s left unanswered — and at issue now in the final pending lawsuit — is whether he uses the aliases for fraudulent purposes or, as he contends, for purely innocent reasons. Cerame said he needs aliases for security reasons, while those who have sued him instead allege that his shifting identities were part of a scheme to cheat them out of properties.

The two other lawsuits against Cerame were settled out of court last year. Pending still is a lawsuit by Irondequoit resident Cheryl Helfer; in that case, state Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Frazee is considering whether Cerame used fake names to set up fraudulent trusts for property ownership.

Cerame declined to comment or be interviewed for this story — hence, there is no photograph of the multi-named individual. One of his attorneys, John Bansbach, referred to court papers for responses to questions. Those thousands of pages of court papers are the foundation for much of the information in this story and include depositions, property documents and correspondence between Cerame and others.

In court testimony in one case, which ultimately was settled, Cerame said the aliases were necessary because he has tenants in some properties he owns who “are difficult people.” He claimed he’d been “punched, pushed, spit on and threatened by tenants and their friends.”

Helfer’s attorney, Christopher Enos, maintains that the multiple monikers are a vehicle for deceit, and have been illegally used in court and mortgage-related documents. “It’s harder to trace his transactions” because of the names, Enos said.

Cerame has not been charged with any crimes in connection with the aliases.

Paper trail

Whether fear or fraud is the motivation for Cerame’s many names, the aliases do — as Enos claims — turn attempts to follow Cerame’s property transactions into a far-from-linear journey. Court records show that one deposition of Cerame resembled more the classic Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine than a series of legal-based questions. In that deposition, attorney Jon Getz represented Lisa Fix, who was suing Cerame. Getz asked Cerame about a property-owning trust he’d established that listed Anthony Shablacone as a trustee. Was there more than one trustee, Getz asked.

Anthony Shablacone was not the sole trustee,” Cerame answered.

Okay, who were the other trustees?”

Myself.”

” … Wait a minute. Anthony Shablacone is one trustee, correct?”

Yes.”

And you were the other one?”

Yes.”

And you’re the same person, right?”

That’s right.”

When Cerame first approached Cheryl Helfer, offering to help her save her home from tax foreclosure, he presented himself as Anthony Shablacone. (The origin of this name is unclear in court papers, but may derive from Cerame once being called “Shabby” by an acquaintance.)

That was in 2006. Helfer was going through a divorce, unemployed after the loss of a job, and battling health ailments that would lead to a kidney transplant. She also could no longer pay taxes on a Tamarack Drive home that she’d lived in for three decades and was completely paid off.

I had no money,” she said in an interview. “Taxes were overdue. … I was going to lose the house. It was going up for auction for nonpayment of taxes.”

She received a letter from Anthony Shablacone, advertising himself as a residential real estate specialist.

He offered to help save her from the foreclosure sale.

I sincerely want to help you, and there’s no time to lose,” wrote Cerame under the guise of Shablacone.

Now, almost five years later, Helfer is embroiled in the lawsuit against Cerame as she tries to keep ownership of the home. She said Cerame agreed to loan her money to pay her taxes, and then duped her into signing documents that transferred him ownership of the property. Cerame answered that he did nothing illegal and Helfer entered into any agreements knowingly.

Cerame created a trust for ownership of the property — a typical move in his house purchases. Justice Frazee has directed attorneys to provide information about the trust, and depositions are scheduled as the civil suit proceeds.

Tortuous history

The other two lawsuits — by Fix and Louis DeRosa — were similar in allegations, namely that Cerame offered to help them save their homes, that he used different names at different times, and that he ultimately bamboozled them.

Both alleged that they were suffering severe health issues that caused them to fall behind on their taxes.

They, unlike Helfer, say they agreed to transfer the homes to Cerame with an understanding that they would have quick opportunities to purchase their homes back as they resolved their financial difficulties.

The victims that he tends to prey on are people who are ill or destitute or both,” said Fix’s husband, Michael Weidner, who began dating Fix around the time she lost her Fairport home.

In both cases, Cerame said the buyers knew full well the terms of the agreement, and that he even allowed them to rent back from him at charitable rates. When they fell behind on payments, he moved to evict them as tenants. There were no firm rent-to-buy pacts, he said.

Weidner attempted to help Fix by purchasing the Fairport home back from Cerame. He hired Victor-based lawyer Dawn Grosso to assist with the transaction.

In an affidavit, Grosso alleged that Cerame “was very evasive and avoided providing something as simple as an address” for her to send mail to him.

When Grosso tried to get specifics about the trust which had ownership of the Fairport property, Cerame claimed that the trust prohibited disclosure of information, records show.

Ultimately, Weidner did not buy the home, but county records show that the home was transferred back to Fix after the lawsuit settled in October.

Participants in the lawsuit would not discuss particulars of the settlement. “We wanted to just get done with it,” Weidner said.

We were not pleased with the end result.”

DeRosa’s lawsuit settled for $16,000, court records show.

Weidner said he contacted state and federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies, as well as local elected officials, and does not know whether any investigation is ongoing.

Local law enforcement officials would not comment on whether they have an interest in Cerame.

Of course, their questions would be the central issue with Cerame/Shablacone/Damifino/Portadori (who has used at least three other aliases): Is he committing fraud when he signs mortgage documents as someone else?

County records show that, as recently as April, Cerame was signing documents as Richard Hedd.

A Victor-based lawyer, Robert Mullin, notarized the mortgage-related documents. He declined to comment because, he said, of confidentiality since Cerame is a client.

Attorneys who have sued Cerame allege that he uses the aliases to create property-owning trusts, and then does not file taxes for the trusts. Court testimony and, oddly, a website from a Texas-based certified public accountant are proof of their allegations, they say.

There is a photo of the CPA and Anthony Cerame on the website, though the photo does not identify Cerame by name.

Also on the website is a testimonial from an individual who says that after his “life got a bit messy,” he stopped filing business taxes, and the CPA is now helping him.

I went seven years without filing, thinking that because the profits and the losses from my real estate developing and house flipping were probably about equal, it wasn’t that big a deal,” the individual wrote. “The IRS disagreed and I am now going through what one of my friends calls the audit from hell.”

The testimonial does not fall back on aliases: Instead, it is from “Tony Cerame of Rochester NY.”

GCRAIG@DemocratandChronicle.com