BB&T investigator says she was fired for not covering up fraud

Dec. 7--A former corporate investigator for BB&T filed suit Thursday against North Carolina's third-largest bank, saying the company fired her in June for refusing to participate in the coverup of a $20 million loan fraud.

Amy Stroupe, a sheriff's detective before she was hired by BB&T in 2005, said the loans were made as part of a failed real estate development in western North Carolina.

The development, the Village of Penland, collapsed in May with investors owing banks an estimated $120 million.

The banks involved in the development said they were duped, but Stroupe claims BB&T participated in the fraud by lending money for lots that were clearly overvalued. She said more than 120 BB&T loans used the same appraiser and lawyer and a picture of what appeared to be the same mountain lot.

She alleges that she was fired, in part, for contacting the Federal Bureau of Investigation and insisting that all details be turned over to them. Stroupe said she knew her investigation had upset some supervisors but that she was still shocked by their reaction.

"I was floored," she said. "I guess I thought if I was doing something wrong I would have received a written warning or something."

BB&T spokeswoman A.C. McGraw said the bank has not seen the suit, which was filed in Cleveland County Superior Court, and could not comment on it. The BB&T office involved in the complaint is in Cleveland County.

Stroupe's complaint is the second lawsuit filed in the past month claiming banks were involved in fraudulent loans involving the Mitchell County development.

Another suit filed against the developers earlier this year was amended in November to add BB&T, First Charter of Charlotte, Carolina First of Greenville, S.C., and United Community Banks of Georgia as defendants. That suit, filed by individual investors, was filed in Wake Superior Court.

BB&T has denied the allegations in that suit. "We are confident that over the course of the proceedings we will be vindicated," McGraw said.

Stroupe's complaint addresses only BB&T, saying she was wrongfully terminated and suffered emotional distress. She accuses the company of defamation, saying the firing will make it difficult for her to return to a successful career in law enforcement.

In building her argument for those charges, she alleges that BB&T was guilty of criminal acts such as obstructing justice, making false statements to law enforcement agents and deceptive trade practices. The suit, handled by James, Hoyer, Newcomer & Smiljanich of Tampa, Fla., names only the bank as a defendant.

Smelling a rat

Stroupe's involvement in the case began in February. That is when a BB&T employee at a branch office in Shelby got a call from an employee of the Peerless Development Group asking that money be transferred from the developer's account to individual lot holders at Penland.

Peerless was the developer for a proposed community of exclusive homes and businesses that developers were promoting.

"The employee asked if the developer wanted to make a full payment on the individual accounts or just sort of catch them up," Stroupe said in an interview. "The Peerless employee said to just catch them up so as not to raise any suspicion. The first employee thought that was sort of weird ... and a second employee decided he should review some of the files."

The first 10 files related to the Village of Penland were virtually identical, the suit said. All were handled by Bryan Drum, the BB&T Shelby branch manager, who had transferred from a nearby location about a month earlier. At that point, the second employee reviewed more than 120 files related to Penland. Many of those files were also virtually identical.

In addition, the lots were valued at about six times their current tax value, most buyers lived outside North Carolina, they had never seen the lots and they had never met the loan officer.

Drum, who now works at Carolina Farm Credit of Shelby, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Stroupe calls the FBI

After reviewing the files, Stroupe called her supervisors. She also contacted the FBI on March 5 about possible violations of federal law.

Though her immediate supervisors and other investigators quickly questioned the loans, Stroupe said higher levels of management seemed uninterested.

In an interview, Stroupe said she met with BB&T's regional banking manager, Charlie Mattox, and regional President Michael Willet in Asheville to discuss the case. Before she completed her presentation, Willett excused himself to attend a golf tournament.

Drum eventually lost his authority to approve loans, according to the suit, but Mattox then approved three additional applications related to Penland that "were already in the pipeline."

In her interview, Stroupe said she and Mattox had disagreed about other investigations, but her job evaluations were good. Their relationship deteriorated rapidly, however, after she refused to back off the Penland case.

During a review of property records in Mitchell County, she also found "other banks had already been there asking questions."

But Stroupe said she was told not to attend a meeting in May with BB&T officials and the FBI. She said she later learned that a report she prepared for the meeting was not given to the FBI.

Stroupe gets fired

Stroupe was fired June 20. Documents filed with the state Employment Security Commission include a warning for insubordination dated June 19, but it is not signed. A second document in the ESC file states that the warning was never delivered to her.

Instead, Stroupe said her supervisor called her to a conference room at work on June 20.

"He said, 'It's become obvious that you can not conform to a corporate setting, so therefore we are going to terminate your employment.' It was very clear that 'you're not here to ask questions, and we're not here to answer questions. You are being terminated.' "

Stroupe said after her supervisors took her company credit card, keys and employee badge, they had only one specific question before she was escorted from the building: "They asked for the Peerless case file. No other file."

BB&T initially challenged Stroupe's eligibility for unemployment benefits, saying she had taken time off work without approval and talked about personnel matters with other employees in violation of company policy. She challenged those claims in an appeal to the ESC, stating that she was fired "for investigating a $20 million bank fraud."

Stroupe was awarded her unemployment benefits, because the bank chose not to participate in the appeal hearing.

Copyright (c) 2007, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.