ORLANDO,Fla. - An Action 9 investigation has uncovered hundreds of state-licensed notaries who are convicted felons and many were convicted con artists and thieves.
Action 9 spent two months examining state records and found more than 400 notaries licensed to validate legal documents also have criminal pasts. Many felons who have an active notary license are in state prison.
Robert Merchant served months for his role in a massive real estate scam and had pleaded guilty to organized fraud. Action 9 found that he remains a Florida licensed notary. April Lowry said she is one of his victims.
She said Merchant used fake signatures to sell her a home his company didn't own.
"He stole from us. Not with a gun, with a pen," said Lowry.
Lowry said she can't believe Merchant remains licensed to authenticate legal documents.
"That's ridiculous. Would you offer a murderer a gun? He's going to use that to steal from people," said Lowry.
Action 9 used a complete list of all licensed notaries, and then checked it against another list of Florida felons to identify more than 400 current notaries with criminal histories.
Action 9 found a Brevard County licensed notary used fake documents to cheat an elderly woman out of $50,000.
An Orange County licensed notary scammed her own employer out of $120,000.
The search also uncovered a Tampa Bay licensed notary who is currently behind bars for second-degree murder.
Sally Baptiste said she is a victim of notary fraud.
A notary validated documents used to steal her father's estate.
She said she expected Action 9 to find serious problems with Florida notary supervision.
"What I've seen with notary fraud and what the state is doing, I'm not surprised, but I am disgusted," said Baptiste.
Florida's 400,000 notaries are supervised by a single employee in the Governor's
Office. State officials said criminal convictions were reviewed on a case by case basis.
Fla. State Sen. Darren Soto said the Action 9 investigation shows the system is badly broken.
"It's absolutely shocking, this database of felons. It's clear this was a breakdown in the Governor's Office in approving these folks," said Soto.
Soto has proposed legislation that would drastically increase notary screening and supervision.
Lowry said she thinks serious reforms are long overdue.
"I think it's outrageous. Florida seems to encourage crime," said Lowry.
Action 9 first contacted Gov. Rick Scott's office Wednesday and was told someone would review the findings.
According to the National Notary Association, eight states won't license felons as notaries. Many others revoke a license for economic crimes.
Response to the Action 9 report from Fla. Gov. Rick Scott's office:
Our General Counsel’s office works diligently with law enforcement agencies and others to protect the integrity of the nearly 400,000 notaries in the state from fraud. This year alone, our office has suspended or removed 52 notaries.
We will continue to identify and revoke notary licenses from convicted criminals who fail to comply with the laws governing notary conduct in the state of Florida.
Office of Governor Rick Scott