Robert Rivernider, 47, Wellington, Florida, his sister Loretta Seneca, 50, Boynton Beach, Florida, and Robert Ponte, 59, Stonington, Connecticut, who had been on trial in Hartford, Connecticut, federal court, have pleaded guilty to various offenses stemming from two separate investment schemes.
Rivernider pleaded guilty on February 25, 2013, to two counts of conspiracy and 16 counts of wire fraud; Seneca pleaded guilty also on February 25 to one count of conspiracy and one count of wire fraud. On March 1, 2013, Ponte pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy, 14 counts of wire fraud, and two counts of tax evasion. The trial before United States District Judge Robert N. Chatigny began on February 7, 2013.
According to court documents and the evidence disclosed during the trial, between approximately November 2006 and December 2007, Rivernider, Ponte, and Seneca engaged in a real estate investment conspiracy that defrauded both lenders and individuals they recruited. As part of the scheme, Rivernider, Ponte, and others recruited victim borrowers to take out financing to purchase various investment properties, primarily in Tennessee and Florida, with financing from victim lenders. Rivernider and Ponte typically represented to borrowers that these properties would be passive investments and that Ponte and Rivernider would be responsible for the details of the purchase, rental, maintenance, and payment of the mortgages on the properties.
The co-conspirators made false representations to the victim borrowers that Rivernider and Ponte would arrange for the purchase of the properties by the borrowers at markedly discounted values. In fact, Rivernider and Ponte frequently marked up the purchase price of the properties to the victim borrowers, often by as much as 25 percent, without disclosing the increase in the purchase price. Rivernider, Ponte and others also falsely represented that the investment properties would return to the victim borrowers sufficient money to cover the carrying costs, as well as reduce the borrowers’ other debt burden.
Rivernider, Ponte, Seneca and others victimized lenders by making multiple false representations in loan applications and other documents provided to the victim lenders. Seneca, a trained mortgage broker, was actively involved in the real estate transactions, including organizing and gathering many of the materials needed by the victim lenders, gathering certain information from the victim borrowers, providing certain comparables based on properties brokered by Rivernider to be used for purportedly independent appraisals, and a range of other background tasks necessary for the lenders to make the loans.
This scheme involved at least 100 properties, and the investigation has revealed that the victim lending institutions have suffered nearly $20 million in losses.
In a second scheme, between approximately June 2005 and April 2008, Rivernider and Ponte conspired to defraud several victim investors by misrepresenting that the investors’ money would be invested in legitimate, high-return investments. As part of the conspiracy, Rivernider and Ponte used the Internet and other means to market a debt payment program typically called No More Bills through The Hudson Group, an entity that Ponte established. With the No More Bills program, Rivernider and Ponte sought victim investors to invest money with them, funds that the victim investors typically would raise through home equity lines of credit, or would borrow from 401K plans.
Rivernider and Ponte materially misrepresented that investors would receive a substantial investment return, typically a monthly repayment on the invested money of approximately seven to 10 percent of their initial investment; that the returns would continue for a period substantially longer than needed to recoup the initial investment and result in a return substantially greater than the initial investment; that the victim investors’ existing debts and home equity lines of credit, if taken out to fund the investment, would be repaid in full from investment returns, and that the victim investors’ money were being invested offshore in legitimate high-return investments, including investments in foreign currency exchanges, hedge funds, or other high-yield ventures. Instead of investing the funds as promised, Rivernider and Ponte used the funds to pay their and their extended families’ living expenses, as well as the preexisting debts of other investors.
Through this second scheme, investors lost at least $3 million.
When they are sentenced, Rivernider and Ponte face a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years for conspiring on the first investment fraud scheme; and Rivernider, Ponte, and Seneca face a maximum term of imprisonment of 30 years for conspiring on the real estate investment scheme. The wire fraud charges also carry maximum terms of imprisonment of 20 or 30 years. In addition, the tax evasion counts against Ponte carry a maximum term of imprisonment of five years on each count.
David B. Fein, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, and Kimberly K. Mertz, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, announced the guilty pleas.
This matter is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys John H. Durham and Christopher W. Schmeisser.
The Connecticut Securities, Commodities, and Investor Fraud Task Force investigates matters relating to insider trading, market manipulation, Ponzi schemes, investor fraud, financial statement fraud, violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and embezzlement. The task force includes representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation; U.S. Secret Service; U.S. Postal Inspection Service; U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, Fraud Section and Antitrust Division; U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC); Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP); Office of the Chief State’s Attorney; State of Connecticut Department of Banking; Greenwich Police Department; and Stamford Police Department.
Citizens are encouraged to report any financial fraud schemes by calling, toll-free, 855-236-9740, or by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The announcement is part of efforts underway by President Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF), which was created in November 2009 to wage an aggressive, coordinated, and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. With more than 20 federal agencies, 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices, and state and local partners, it is the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory,and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud. Since its formation, the task force has made great strides in facilitating increased investigation and prosecution of financial crimes; enhancing coordination and cooperation among federal, state, and local authorities; addressing discrimination in the lending and financial markets; and conducting outreach to the public, victims, financial institutions, and other organizations. Over the past three fiscal years, the Justice Department has filed more than 10,000 financial fraud cases against nearly 15,000 defendants, including more than 2,700 mortgage fraud defendants.
“As the overwhelming evidence in this trial revealed, Rivernider and Ponte recruited individuals to invest their money by making false promises of guaranteed, high returns,” stated U.S. Attorney Fein. “Their investment program was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, which left several investors in financial ruin. With the assistance of Ms. Seneca, these defendants also engaged in a real estate investment scheme that defrauded more individuals, as well as lending institutions. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to working with the FBI, IRS-CI, and our other law enforcement partners to root out financial schemes to protect the investing public.”
“The FBI conducted an extensive investigation into the various conspiracies orchestrated by the three defendants, conspiracies designed with no goal other than to enrich themselves at the expense of other individuals and banks alike,” stated FBI Special Agent in Charge Mertz. “Cases like this are only successful with the teamwork of our federal partners. The IRS was instrumental to this investigation, as was the United States Attorney’s Office, which was exceptional in presenting a case at trial that resulted in three guilty pleas before even concluding its case.”