Allegheny County making changes to make sure property records mistake not repeated

PITTBSURGH — After several days of questions, 11 Investigates finally got some clarity today from Allegheny County on how a fictitious company managed to get online property records changed to its fake name.

In an email from the county to 11 Investigates, the county manager of real estate answered our questions in writing. Brian Brodeur acknowledged that changing the online records was a mistake and explained how it happened. He said the original document filed with his office used “sophisticated” language that was confusing because it mimicked similar documents filed in the past.

“This document should have only been coded and treated as a Notice to File a Declaration of Taking, rather than an actual Declaration of Taking. Because it was treated as an actual Taking, the website was subsequently updated,” Brodeur explained in the statement.

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Brodeur also told 11 Investigates that new safeguards are being put in place to prevent it from happening again.

“Due to the sophistication of these recent filings, we held a training to inform our employees of these documents, and to show them red flags. We are also adding an extra layer of review where the Manager of the Division of Real Estate will review all court filings and declarations of taking before any updates are made to the website,” he wrote.

Homeowners targeted by the fictitious company’s scheme were relieved today to hear 11 investigates finally got some answers from the county.

“I’m really glad to hear they’re going to put some safeguards in place,” Perry Hilltop Executive Director Joanna Deming said. “I think they need to monitor it though and make sure the new system is working.”

Brodeur also answered several questions explaining the process by which documents are recorded at the Division of Real Estate. (Click here to read all the answers from the manager of real estate.)

Fictitious company tries to take properties

In our original report Friday, 11 Investigates exposed a sophisticated scheme by an unregistered company trying to swoop in and take several homeowners’ properties on the Northside.

The entity — calling itself the Northside Redevelopment Association of Pittsburgh — filed a declaration of taking with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, then took that official-looking document, filed it at the Division of Real Estate, and then sent it to 20 Northside homeowners.

The certified letter told homeowners Northside Redevelopment was trying to condemn their property and take it over through eminent domain—something only the government can do.

Making matters worse, after the county real estate office filed the document, it mistakenly changed the homeowners’ online records to the fictitious company’s name. That was the same day the paperwork was filed with the court and before any notice was given to homeowners, any hearings were held or any court orders were issued authorizing the change. And it wasn’t the first time.

Four other Northside properties were also targeted by the same people behind Northside Redevelopment, in the fall of 2019. That fictitious company used a different name, but once again, the court mistakenly changed the homeowners’ online records to the fake group.

Targeted homeowners were confused and frightened.

“This was really mind-boggling, and upsetting. And, yes, I was scared,” said Kevin Wade, one of the targeted homeowners who called 11 Investigates.

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The Perry Hilltop Citizens Council was shocked to see the online records changed when homeowners started to contact it with their concerns.

“Just couldn’t believe it even happened,” Deming said. “We wanted to know what accountability there is.”

Today, they at least got some clarity on how this happened and what’s being done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Homeowners are also glad to hear the fictitious company that did this has been referred to the Allegheny County Police Department for criminal investigation.

“You’ve got to make an example,” Wade said. “If you let them get away with it, who’s to say others aren’t going to do the same thing?”