The way prosecutors tell it, Phillip Barnard Jr. cultivated his victims carefully, chatting up parents from his daughter’s soccer team with the promise of risk-free riches and using his status as a distinguished alum to persuade Virginia Tech professors to open up their checkbooks.
His persona was convincing. When Barnard promised his alma mater $30 million for a new geosciences building, the university hired architects to get the process going and sought matching funds from the state. When he told his friends about an exclusive short-term investment opportunity in gold, they trusted him with their money.
One said that Barnard even promised bombastically that he would relinquish custody of his beloved daughter to her if the venture in gold bullion didn’t pay off.
“I know that was bogus, but it did its job,” said Marilyn Clemmer, whose daughter played soccer with Barnard’s. “It made me feel secure.”
The donation and the investments, though, were pure fantasy, prosecutors said. Barnard, they alleged, was no more than a “breathtakingly persuasive liar” who took more than $800,000 from his friends to spend on luxury cars, a vacation in Las Vegas and dinners at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
On Thursday, a federal judge in Alexandria sentenced him to five years and three months in prison, the top of what federal guidelines called for and a punishment that some of his victims said gave them solace. Earlier this year, Barnard pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering after fighting for three days at trial.
“He’s such a bad guy,” Clemmer said. “I don’t think he cares about any of us.”
The sentence marks a stunning nadir for a man who from the outside seemed to be a successful international businessman who easily navigated the ranks of high society.
A 1983 graduate of Virginia Tech, Barnard — whose family lived in Northern Virginia but later moved to the Richmond area — once designed tennis programs for Club Med and started a consulting service for companies involved in underwater salvage and mining exploration, court documents show. He boasted of connections with billionaires and royal families, according to prosecutors and victims.
But he never had any real job or business success, paying for everything — including his daughter’s $30,000-a-year tuition at the exclusive Bullis School in Potomac, Md. — with funds he stole from his friends, prosecutors said.
“He’s survived on fraud for the last 25 years, and he thinks he’s going to fool the court,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Catizone said Tuesday in urging a harsh penalty.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said that Barnard’s actions constituted “one of the worst fraud cases I’ve seen in terms of the blatant way you interacted with the victims.”
For his part, Barnard said his intentions were to “make a positive difference in people.” In court Tuesday, Barnard turned to face those whose money he lost and spoke softly.
“I just want you to know that you were family. We loved you,” Barnard said. “I want to earn your trust again.”
In court and during interviews, victims described similar, harrowing interactions with him. Barnard, they said, approached them about a low-risk investment opportunity with a quick payoff and then prodded them to invest more and more cash. Soon, they said, they felt they had committed too much to back out. And they believed in Barnard.
Alvin D’Andrea, 73, a retired postal service manager who lives in Ellicott City, said he had known Barnard for 21 years and that the two would frequently talk on the phone about Virginia history, pirates and buried treasure. When Barnard promised to cover his losses from another failed venture, D’Andrea trusted him. He ended up losing, by authorities’ count, more than $193,000.
“He is now, and always will be, a menace to society,” D’Andrea said.
Clemmer, 61, a preschool teacher from Waynesboro, Pa., said that her daughter played travel soccer with Barnard’s daughter in Bethesda and that when Barnard got word her family was in financial distress, he swooped in. She gave him $50,000 to invest, then quickly realized she had been duped. She lost her four children’s college fund.
“You are a cruel, dishonest, heartless, incredibly lazy person, husband and father who lives off others,” Clemmer said in court Tuesday.
Attorneys for Barnard disputed that he lived a lavish lifestyle with his victims’ money, writing in court papers that he “used the money his investors provided to keep his business and his family afloat while waiting for his business opportunities to materialize.” The trip to Las Vegas, attorney Sue Bai said, was for his daughter’s soccer game; the cars he drove were rented. Barnard and his attorneys declined to comment after the sentencing.
Prosecutors alleged that Barnard victimized seven people dating back as far as 1996 and that his fraud cut deep in the Virginia Tech community.
He was well-respected at the school, even giving the commencement address at the 2005 Geosciences Department graduation.
That honor, though, was driven largely by Barnard’s promise of $30 million for a new geosciences building, prosecutors wrote. Not only did he not make the donation, he personally victimized a professor and dean, prosecutors wrote.
Mark Owczarski, a Virginia Tech spokesman, said the university works with donors who pledge gifts “to better understand how and when a pledge will become a gift.”
“As it became apparent Mr. Barnard had no intention on fulfilling his pledge, the university stopped its work with him and the proposed project,” he said.
Owczarski said the state ultimately agreed to let Virginia Tech redirect most of the matching funds to the construction of a performing arts center, which opened two years ago.
Barnard’s defense attorneys asked that he be sentenced to two years in prison, and his family members urged the judge to consider that he was a hardworking man and loving father to his 22-year-old daughter, now a junior in college. But prosecutors said that Barnard never had good intentions. Catizone, the assistant U.S. attorney, said Barnard’s case was “like when the Grinch stole Christmas. He left just hooks and wires on the walls.”
“Mr. Barnard,” he said, “doesn’t get it.”