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Creator of veterans charity owes $19 million for federal conspiracy charge

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — As a recently established charity raises money to build a veterans village near the Salisbury VA Medical Center, one of its organizers also will make monthly payments on a $19 million debt for federal conspiracy charges.

In 2009, Mooresville resident Kenneth Lagonia pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection to a real estate investment scheme, according to court documents. The scheme involved N.J. Affordable Homes Corp. and its subsidiaries. Lagonia was president of Quality Homes Are Us, one of the subsidiaries.

For his plea, Lagonia received jail time, probation and a hefty restitution sum.

Court documents say Lagonia’s part in the conspiracy occurred from August 2003 to September 2005. At the time, he lived in New Jersey. By the time he pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge, court documents show, Lagonia had moved to North Carolina. Last year, he started a charity called Training, Educating and Motivating with partner Sonya White.

Among other things, White and Lagonia say they have spent $100,000 of their own money to find housing and jobs for veterans and ex-offenders. The pair hoped to raise roughly the same amount of money they said they put into the nonprofit group to build a “tiny home” village for veterans near the Salisbury Veterans Administration Medical center. It’s unclear how much the company has raised to date.

On Thursday, Lagonia said he was nearly ready to announce “record-breaking news” — that his nonprofit had secured 10 acres for its tiny homes village.

When asked about the criminal charges, Lagonia acknowledged that he had previously pleaded guilty to the mail fraud charge. Lagonia said he could provide “a lot of evidence” that he was not guilty of the conspiracy charge or connected to N.J. Affordable Home Corp., which the U.S. Attorney’s Office called a “classic Ponzi scheme.”

“I think it would be a gross miscarriage of justice to write a story without looking at the documents,” he said.

Lagonia said he is going on vacation for a week starting Saturday and would not be able to provide documents before then.

He also said Thursday that he pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge because the attorneys would have brought his wife into the court proceedings. By pleading guilty in 2009, he admitted creating false solicitation letters to investors and received 32 months in prison and three years of probation. A federal court at the time also ordered that Lagonia pay $19 million in restitution. By February 2016, he still owed $18.995 million.

In a 2009 news release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey said N.J. Affordable Homes Corp. President and founder Wayne Puff and his co-conspirators obtained more than $120 million from investors by falsely touting the profitability and security of an investment in the housing company. The company purportedly was in the business of buying houses, renovating them and selling them at a profit.

Despite his criminal history, Lagonia told the Salisbury Post on Thursday that people should trust his veterans nonprofit because “lots of people make mistakes.” Lagonia said he has worked for multiple law firms in the Charlotte area. Those firms would not have hired him if they were not comfortable with his criminal history, he said. He didn’t provide the names of the law firms.

Court documents show the latest action in Lagonia’s conspiracy case occurred in February 2016, when Lagonia’s supervision was allowed to expire. At the time, he agreed to pay $260 per month to the federal district court in Charlotte until his $19 million restitution is paid.

When promoting his most recent effort, Lagonia said his nonprofit was working with the Salisbury VA to make the “tiny house” village happen. However, in a statement, Salisbury VA spokesman Bart Major said it is the policy of the VA hospital to meet with any organization or company that expresses an interest in assisting homeless veterans or ending homelessness.

“To that end, Salisbury VA met with TEAM leadership on Dec. 3 to listen to their ideas,” Major said in the prepared statement. “The dialogue has not led to any formal partnership or agreement. Salisbury VA takes seriously its responsibility to ensure that our community partners exhibit the highest possible standards, consistent with the VA’s commitment to providing the quality care and services that our veterans deserve.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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