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Poppi Metaxas, former bank CEO, sentenced to 18 months in bank fraud

A former bank chief executive was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Central Islip to 18 months in prison for her role in a sham transaction involving a Melville-based national mortgage lender.

Poppi Metaxas of Hillsborough, California, pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to commit bank fraud. She is one of the few bank chiefs to be given a prison sentence for wrongdoing during the financial crisis.

Before the sentencing, Metaxas addressed Judge Joseph Bianco, calling her action “a tragic mistake that has devastated my entire life.”

In 2008, the institution she ran, Gateway Bank FSB, based in Oakland, California, was under pressure from federal regulators to rid itself of bad loans and raise capital. In March 2009, Metaxas arranged for Gateway to lend $3.6 million to now-defunct Lend America of Melville. The mortgage lender transferred the money to investors who sent it back to Gateway, purportedly as a down payment to buy toxic loans from Gateway. Metaxas misled the bank’s board and regulators about the deal, not letting on that it was a “round trip” transaction that failed to change the bank’s financial condition.

Defense attorney Laura Birger asked the judge for probation, saying Metaxas meant to rescue her bank in the depths of the financial crisis, not line her own pockets. Metaxas is a kindhearted 62-year-old grandmother who is recovering from ovarian cancer — diagnosed shortly before the sham loan — and suffering chronic pain, Birger said.

The aftermath of the fraud, Metaxas told the judge in a quiet, shaky voice, “has been much more painful than the cancer that threatened to take my life.”

Federal prosecutor Christopher Nasson asked for a prison term of about 3 to 4 years, arguing Metaxas’ actions harmed the bank, its employees and its investors. The bank had $142 million in assets in September, down from $470 million in March 2009, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Metaxas committed fraud “to preserve her job, she did it to protect her reputation,” Nasson said.

Speaking softly, the judge told Metaxas he believed she was remorseful and that her time in prison “is going to be more difficult than the average person” because of her chronic pain.

But, Bianco said, “I believe any sentence less than 18 months would just not reflect the seriousness of this crime.”

Metaxas shook with sobs after the sentencing. Her attorneys and family members in the courtroom declined to comment.

No leader of a major financial institution has been imprisoned in a case dating to the financial crisis, although a few leaders of smaller banks and mortgage brokerages have been incarcerated, said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School and expert on white-collar crime.

At large institutions, Coffee said, “we tend to immunize and isolate senior executives from the day-to-day decision-making.”

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