Steven E. Jones, 56, a family court judge, and four co-defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for defrauding over 22 people of millions in an investment fraud scheme involving real estate transactions. As part of his plea agreement with the government, Jones agreed to step down from the bench and surrender his law license to the State Bar of Nevada.
Jones, Thomas A. Cecrle, Jr., 57, and Terry J. Wolfe, 59, Henderson, Nevada, and Mark L. Hansen, 56, Corvallis, Oregon, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Jennifer A. Dorsey to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Also in connection with the same fraud scheme, Constance C. Fenton, 70, Gig Harbor, Washington, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. They each face up to 20 years in prison, $250,000 in fines, and mandatory restitution, and are scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 26, 2015. A sixth defendant charged in the scheme, Ashlee M. Martin, 30, Las Vegas, Nevada, pleaded guilty on Aug. 11 to conspiracy to commit money laundering, and is scheduled to be sentenced in August 2015.
According to the plea memoranda, defendants lured victims into a fraud scheme by falsely telling them that Cecrle worked as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, purchasing and selling water rights worth millions of dollars as part of a secret government program. The co-conspirators then solicited money by falsely claiming that Cecrle needed short-term cash loans to complete his phantom water deals, loans he promised to repay in short order along with a very large return. Cecrle and his co-conspirators concocted a similar story involving a land deal on the Las Vegas Strip where Cecrle needed short-term loans to supposedly close a deal with Sir Richard Branson. In truth, however, Cecrle held no position with the federal government and there were no land or water rights deals.
Using his office as an elected state court judge, defendant Jones knowingly vouched for Cecrle and the legitimacy of the deals to potential investors when he knew the deals were, in fact, scams. According to the plea memorandum, Jones continued to further the conspiracy by receiving money from a victim in the parking lot of the Family Division Courthouse, meeting with at least one potential investor in his chambers and elsewhere in the courthouse to discuss the investment, obtaining an “Own Recognizance” bond to release Cecrle from custody after he was arrested for bad checks he had passed to a victim, and opening and maintaining a joint checking account with Cecrle, through which flowed over $260,000 in illegal proceeds. During the entire conspiracy, which lasted from about September 2002 to October 2012, the defendants defrauded at least 22 victims of more than $2.6 million, money they quickly converted to their own use.
U.S. Attorney Daniel G. Bogden for the District of Nevada and Laura Bucheit, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI for Nevada, announced the guilty pleas.
The case was investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven W. Myhre and Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel R. Schiess of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada.
“This prosecution was the result of a long, thorough, and resource-intensive investigation and should serve as a vivid reminder that public officials who use their offices as a means to commit a crime of whatever nature will be pursued vigorously and prosecuted to the utmost rigor of the law,” said U.S. Attorney Bogden. “Defendant Jones knowingly used his office to lull victims into a false sense of security about investments he knew were scams. No one is above the law, especially a person holding the office of judge.”
“These guilty pleas serve as evidence to the public that the FBI, working with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, will continue to ensure that no one is above the law, and when public corruption is identified, it will be aggressively investigated and prosecuted,” said Special Agent in Charge Bucheit.