Risher pleads guilty in $22 million Ponzi scheme

August 29, 2011

Based on the government’s account, James Davis Risher seems to have been eminently qualified to run an investment fund sometimes known as the Preservation of Principal Fund.

The fund was a Ponzi scheme, and Risher had a long history of convictions for crimes such as securities fraud and money laundering, according to the SEC.

Somehow, the promotional materials he used to solicit investors didn’t mention that he had spent 11 of the past 21 years in prison, the SEC said.

Now, he’s facing the possibility of another 50 years.

The Justice Department said Monday that Risher, 61, agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges of mail fraud and money laundering in connection with the scheme.

Separately, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil charges against Risher and Daniel Joseph Sebastian, a former insurance agent who is accused of helping to recruit investors.

More than 100 people — many of them Florida teachers and retirees — invested about $22 million in the fund, the SEC said.

The charges are a reminder that Ponzi schemes have continued to flourish well after Bernard Madoff’s epic fraud put a spotlight on the genre.

In the shadow of Madoff’s multibillion-dollar fraud, most other cases receive little attention, but in recent years busting Ponzi schemes has been a staple of financial enforcement.

The schemes often leave trails of lost savings and shattered lives.

One was allegedly perpetrated by an Amish man, 77, whose assets included a horse and buggy. The alleged scammer behind another fled to Peru, where he was arrested this year.

But in Beverly Hills, Calif., regulators shut down an allegedly fraudulent hedge fund so early that, as far as they could tell, it was not able to attract investors.

Risher, a resident of Sanibel, Fla., was arrested this year as he was about to board a flight to Bermuda.

His scheme began in 2007 and continued into June, the Justice Department said.

Sebastian promoted the fund through golf tournaments and other events, the SEC said.

At an Orlando resort last year, he told investors that by investing in the fund “all of a sudden you start making more money than you’ve ever made in your life,” the SEC said in a court filing.

“You could retire today, like right now,” Sebastian allegedly said in a recorded speech. “And I’m telling you, you get rid of the struggle.”

Many investors rolled over their retirement savings, and at least two drew on home equity lines of credit to invest, the SEC said.

Of the approximately $22 million that people invested, Risher placed only $2.5 million in brokerage accounts for trading, and he lost $890,000 of that, the SEC said.

Risher and Sebastian paid themselves fees of more than $8 million and made payouts to investors of $3.6 million, according to the SEC complaint.

Meanwhile, Sebastian sent investors account statements showing quarterly returns of 2.28 to 5.64 percent, the SEC said.

Risher gave Sebastian phony financial statements that were purportedly audited by a Bermuda firm, but the audit firm “did not exist,” the SEC said.

The statements appeared to have been the product of a cut-and-paste job: The SEC said they “contained many references to irrelevant facts apparently copied from another source, such as executive compensation, stockholders and stock option plans.”

In a biography included in the offering materials, Risher falsely described having worked for and owned a brokerage firm.

Risher spent investors’ money on an array of jewelry itemized in his plea agreement, including diamond earrings, a pearl necklace and a “platinum natural pink diamond engagement ring” purchased for $56,100.

Asked why Risher undertook the scheme, his attorney, Thomas Ostrander, said, “Probably the same reason anybody else commits a crime . . . greed.”

“I think he just got caught up in a delusion-of-grandeur thing,” Ostrander said.

Sebastian “regrets that he ever got involved with Risher” and that he ever advised his clients to invest with him, said Sebastian’s attorney, Burton Wiand.

Sebastian believed that Risher was “a bona fide money manager” but went to the authorities when he became concerned, Wiand said.

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