February 28, 2024

ASHEVILLE – A once-celebrated local entrepreneur who lost his state real estate license for bilking short term vacation rental owners is now set to plead guilty to up to $3.5 million in federal bank fraud.
Shawn Thomas Johnson, 36, is expected to admit guilt March 25 in United States District Court in Asheville to one count of bank fraud, according to a plea agreement filed this month. The maximum sentence is 30 years with a $1 million fine. It is not clear what punishment Johnson would face. A separate sentencing hearing could come in about six months, according to current case trends. 
On March 21 Johnson did not respond to a message seeking comment and his attorney, Thomas Amburgey, who was reached by phone declined to talk about the case.
Prosecutor Don Gast also declined to comment.
Previous reporting:Asheville Airbnb real estate broker’s license revoked; kept property owners’ money
A former business partner said Johnson has continued to defraud people. 
Local builder Whit Riley said the worst outcome would be if Johnson gets only a fine.
“He could pay that out of all his earnings from all these properties that he has acquired from loan fraud and from money generated from bank fraud and continue to take advantage of vulnerable people in real estate,” Riley said.
A charging document filed in federal court said Johnson and others got loans using “fraudulent statements.”
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According to the document, those included:
“From August 2012 through November 2019, Johnson and his co-conspirators closed on at least 16 loans from financial institutions, totaling over $3.5 million to purchase real estate,” the charging document against him said. “In all these loans, Johnson made or directed to be made material misrepresentations of fact to induce the financial institutions to make the loans.”
The properties were used as short-term rentals to generate income, even though local rules prohibited that in many cases, prosecutors wrote.
In three specific examples, prosecutors said Johnson made up a job and fabricated pay stubs to get a $225,000 loan from State Employees Credit Union for a home east of Asheville on Springwood Drive; worked with an unnamed Navy veteran “co-conspirator” to get a $265,000 Veterans Administration-backed loan for a Leicester home on Daniel Brook Drive for a short-term rental, though VA loans are only for primary residences; and worked with another unnamed co-conspirator to get a $247,435 U.S. Housing and Urban Development insured loan to buy an East Asheville home on Pine Cone Drive, saying it was to be a primary residence when it in fact became a short-term rental.
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Johnson has faced federal prosecution before when he was found guilty in 2010 in Asheville of counterfeiting.
Later, he became known as a hard-working handyman and local entrepreneur whose praises were sung on social media, including the WAX (West Asheville Exchange) Facebook page.  
In 2015 he was granted a limited state real estate license. A year later he was picked as one of the featured speakers at a local economy forum, hosted by Western Carolina University and the Citizen Times.
But in February 2019, state real estate regulators stripped Johnson’s license, saying he kept “at least” tens of thousands of dollars owed to short term rental owners whose properties he managed. An Airbnb spokesman said the company removed his account early that year. 
In 2020 police charged Johnson with repeatedly violating COVID-19 restrictions by operating a short term rental.
Riley, Johnson’s former business partner, said even after losing his license Johnson continued to act fraudulently, attempting to sell West Asheville property on Haywood Road that they owned jointly but that Johnson tried to claim for himself by forging his signature. 
“I believe that these aggravating circumstances around all his past dealings warrant a stiff penalty,” Riley said.
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Got a tip? Contact Burgess at jburgess@citizentimes.com, 828-713-1095 or on Twitter @AVLreporter. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times. 


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