Johnston County Attorney Sentenced To Federal Prison

lee levinsonA Johnston County attorney indicted last year by a federal grand jury on fraud and money laundering charges has been sentenced to prison.

Joseph Lee Levinson, a Benson lawyer, was among three people named in the federal grand jury indictment filed in US District Court in Greensboro on December 14th.

Also named were Aubrey Manasseh Pruitt from Orange County and Dustin Garrett Fisher from Durham County.

The indictment alleges Pruitt and Fisher operated a marijuana grow business between December 2005 and December 2010.  Authorities alleged Levinson helped obtain houses where the indoor grow operations were located. In May 2012, Levinson is also alleged to have given a false statement to an investigator with the IRS that he had no knowledge of the business.

Levinson was sentenced to 15 months in prison, followed by 2 years probation. He was ordered to pay $230,079 in restitution and a $100 special assessment.  Levinson could have received up to 60 months in prison.

Levinson had pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to making false statements to federally insured financial institutions.

Marijuana Grow Operation
From 2005 until 2010, Jotham Walker Pruitt and other individuals operated a marijuana “grow” operation in Orange County, North Carolina.

The operation involved the production of marijuana inside houses in the vicinity of Hillsborough in Orange County.

Levinson was a licensed attorney and a college friend of Jotham Pruitt. Levinson conspired with Jotham Pruitt to obtain mortgage funding for properties to be used as “grow houses,” knowing that banks would not loan money to Pruitt if they knew that the houses were to be used for illegal purposes.

Levinson and Pruitt prepared loan applications to Long Beach Mortgage Corporation and SunTrust Bank falsely representing that the properties would be used for legal purposes, such as a residence or as rental property, when in fact both knew that the houses would be used to grow marijuana. Levinson acted as closing attorney for purchase of the first two grow houses used in the operation.

Levinson also conspired with Pruitt to present false leases to Countrywide Bank, N.A., to support Pruitt’s application for mortgage funding to purchase a third grow house. Levinson provided Pruitt with a sample lease to use as a template in creating false leases to present to Countrywide Bank, N.A., showing that previous properties purchased by Pruitt were rental properties occupied by tenants. In fact, these properties were being used to grow marijuana.

The grow operation ceased in December 2010. Upon completion of the business, Pruitt ceased making payments on the mortgages on the grow houses, including those he had purchased with the aid of Levinson. The houses were foreclosed on by the lending banks at a total loss of over $230,000.

Jotham Pruitt, Aubrey Pruitt, and Dustin Fisher have pleaded guilty in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina to related charges.

Levinson was represented at the hearing by Wes Camden of Brooks Pierce and W. Stacy Miller II of Miller Law Firm in Raleigh.

After the hearing, Mr. Miller released the following statement: “In granting Lee a sentence below the federal guidelines, we are grateful to the judge and the US Attorney for acknowledging Lee’s minimal role and the disparity between the benefits he received versus the large profits received by the true architects and unindicted investors of the scheme.”

Levinson also released the following statement: “I’m grateful to the court for granting me a sentence below the minimum guidelines. If grace was deserved, no one would need it; and the outpouring of community support during these difficult and painful times has been deeply humbling. I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to making things right to my family, friends and community, and proving to them that their faith in me is well placed.”

Blannie Cheng a spokesperson for Levinson said he will use his time in prison to prepare for the next phase in his life, and he looks forward to the opportunity to redeem himself to his community and supporters in the future.

The case was investigated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina.

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