$3.6M in Debt, Photo School President Faces Fraud Charges

by David Walker

    Behind the scenes at the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, president and former owner George J. Rosa III has filed for bankruptcy to clear $3.6 million in personal debt, and he's facing fraud charges from a bank he owes nearly $2.2 million.

    People's United Bank of Springfield alleges that Rosa kept two set of books for HIP to hide assets from the bank and divert money for his personal use. Rosa owned HIP until the spring of 2009, but PUB took control of the school and sold it to new owners after Rosa defaulted on his PUB loans.

    Rosa filed for personal bankruptcy in August 2009, and PUB sued him in February 2010 to prevent the bankruptcy court from discharging his $2.2 million obligation to the bank.

    According to PUB's claim, one set of books kept by Rosa "shows an exorbitant amount of money being paid to a variety of individuals...including, but not limited to, Rosa, Rosa's children, Rosa's employees, KeyBank (for Rosa's boat payment), Renaissance Builders, Mercedes Benz, Merrill Lynch, Citizens Bank, Deerfield Academy, Eye on the Dream LLC, a variety of attorneys and other individuals who apparently loaned Rosa money."

    PUB further alleges that Rosa was covering up those transfers of money by recording them as  "payments to Mamiya America," the camera company.

    From July 1 2007 through June 30, 2008, those "payments to Mamiya" amounted to about $1.9 million, PUB alleges. "The amounts however, were not paid to Mamiya," PUB charges. The bank also alleges that Rosa overstated his inventory of cameras and equipment "by approximately $1.9 million."

    Asked whether he was aware of any criminal investigations against Rosa stemming from PUB's fraud allegations, Gary Weiner, Rosa's court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, said, "You can read this how you want to: If I knew, I would not be at liberty to disclose it."

    Rosa's financial troubles began to catch up with him in early 2009 when he started bouncing checks and it "became apparent to the bank that [he] had severely misrepresented the financial circumstances and viability of HIP," according to court papers.

    Under threat of foreclosure, Rosa sought a buyer for HIP. Philadelphia-based Premier Education Group stepped in, and PUB says its examiners discovered during the sale negotiations that Rosa was keeping a second set of books.

    "People's Bank took possession of the [HIP] assets and facilitated the sale to [Premier]," explains Weiner, the bankruptcy trustee. "To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Rosa received absolutely nothing" from the sale of HIP.
    Premier, which owns 25 career training schools throughout the Northeast, kept Rosa as president of HIP. His annual salary is about $120,000, according to his bankruptcy filings.  

    Premier didn't take over Rosa's debts as part of the sale, however. Unable to pay back creditors, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in August 2009 to have his debts wiped out.

    In his bankruptcy petition, Rosa listed debts totaling $3,650,069.72, against assets of $893,661. Of those assets, $876,500 amounted to the value of two houses he owns. Personal property, including $5,000 worth of photographic prints and frames, accounted for the remaining $17,161 of Rosa's assets. He also reported monthly expenses of $11,509 against his monthly income (after payroll deductions) of $6,391.

    In addition to his debt to PUB, Rosa's obligations include several mortgage loans against his properties and  tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt "incurred through [the] operation of business," according to his bankruptcy petition. He indicated that he owes nearly $300,000 to the IRS. And he reported a debt of $160,356 to B&H Foto & Electronics in Boston. Smaller creditors include printers, caterers, banks, electricians and other service providers.
    Rosa says his bankruptcy and the fraud charges against him "is personal business between me and the bank." He added, "The school [HIP] has never been healthier. This has nothing to do with the school." He referred questions about the fraud allegations to his attorney, who was not immediately available.

    Meanwhile, PUB has announced through an asset recovery agency that it will auction a collection of photographs from the Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography. Rosa opened the museum around 2007, and closed it in the spring of 2009, around the time Premier bought HIP.

    PUB took possession of the prints as collateral against the defaulted loans. The collection includes prints by prints by Douglas Kirkland, Lynn Goldsmith, Michael Yamashita, and other photographers. The prints will be auction at the Griffin Museum in Winchester, Massachusetts on November 11.

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