Friday, March 14, 2014

BUNNELL - The five-year prison sentence is one chapter in the long story about Anthony Fregenti and his penchant for taking money from unsuspecting people. It is a crime he admitted to twice in open court, once during his plea hearing six months ago and again before he was sentenced Wednesday.
It might not be the final chapter as long as he is required to pay back his victims. The judge ordered him to serve five years in prison and then pay at least $100,000 per year to those seven people he swindled. He has a history of paying off people by using the money he took from others – which is basically the definition of a Ponzi scheme.
The State Attorney’s Office reported Fregenti had stolen close to $4 million from seven people across two counties. The defense conceded most of that amount, but questioned a portion, about $750,000, being claimed by one of the victims.
The attorneys were given a couple days to settle on a final amount.
“Ponzi schemes devastate the victims and their families leaving many financially ruined,” said R.J. Larizza in an email Wednesday, hours after the verdict was announced. “The judge’s sentence should serve as a reminder to those who engage in white collar crime that they will face significant prison time as a consequence of their actions.”
Fregenti duped his victims by telling them he would acquire an inventory of exotic cars and motorcycles and sell them to wealthy customers overseas, including a Saudi Arabian prince.
Most of Fregenti’s victims were seated Wednesday in the courtroom at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center. They were an attentive group. At times they also were demonstrative. They collectively rolled their eyes and sighed whenever they heard testimony that triggered bad memories. All of them felt a sense of familiarity after they learned Fregenti had not come up with all of the restitution that was required of him prior to his sentencing. They all knew what it was like to not have the money in hand the day Fregenti promised to deliver it.
The total restitution Fregenti was required to pay prior to his sentencing was $300,000.
The defendant’s deadline for the final payment of $150,000 was Tuesday. He had already submitted $50,000 when he entered his guilty plea last September and then another $100,000 a few months later.
The agreement between the state and the defense was that he would submit the money to his attorney’s law firm. Fregenti’s attorney is Harry Shorstein, formerly the state attorney for Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit.
The financial director at Shorstein & Lasnetski was then required to submit the payments to the state. By Wednesday morning, the State Attorney’s Office still had not received the full $150,000.
The prosecutors would have the money in hand within a couple hours of when the hearing began, but there were snags.
Two cashier’s checks were submitted by the defendant. The first one was for $100,000 and the name on the recipient line of the check had the law firm’s name wrong. The second check, for $50,000, was brought into the courtroom mid-morning by one of Fregenti’s business associates while the state’s second witness was on the stand providing testimony.
Shorstein said the late payments were the result of an administrative mistake on the part of his law firm.
During his closing arguments, prosecutor Luis Bustamente laid the blame squarely on the defendant. He said the restitution schedule and the amounts due were clearly stated on the agreement Fregenti signed last September.
“This is another (act) of deception,” Bustamente said. “Another way to wiggle out of his responsibilities.”
The deadline was an important part of the deal. If Fregenti didn’t pay the full $300,000 on time, his maximum prison sentence would increase from 10 years to 15 years. The judge, however, reserved the right to sentence him to no prison time regardless of when the checks came in – or whether they came in at all. Circuit Judge J. David Walsh settled on a sentence of five years behind bars.
“Good riddance,” said Daryl Drown moments after the verdict was read and the cuffs were placed on Fregenti. He was among the handful of victims who took the stand Wednesday. He was the only one who agreed to talk to the News-Journal reporter following the sentencing hearing – and the above quote was all he provided.
Drown, who lives in St. Augustine, is a former professional skier. These days, he is an airline technician. In between those two careers, he owned and operated a sporting goods store.
He was more than Fregenti’s former business partner. He was his friend. The two of them bonded over their mutual love of motorcycles, he said.
He said he closed his store in 2012 after he lost more than $100,000 from his business dealings with Fregenti.
“It affected everything,” he said on the stand Wednesday. “My marriage almost fell apart and I lost my business.”
For several months, he desperately tried to get his money back. Drown said he would call Fregenti and leave voicemails. They often went unanswered. One day, Fregenti decided to call back.
Fregenti left an offensive message, according to Drown’s sworn testimony.
The prosecutor asked Drown to describe what Fregenti said to him.
“He would rather pay (for his) defense than pay it back to me,” Drown said.
Some of the victims in the courtroom gasped and shook their heads when Drown said those words.
One of those who submitted a written statement stated in his letter that justice would be felt more if Fregenti repaid his victims instead of being sent behind bars. However, he wasn’t confident enough that Fregenti would pay.
Another victim, who lost $1.6 million, wrote in his letter that Fregenti was a “creature of habit” who “lacks a moral compass.”
Their letters were read aloud by Bustamente.
Local residential contractor Antonio Amaral Jr., said his family business suffered substantially after they gave Fregenti $840,000.
“We are a lot less trustful,” Amaral said of the way he and his family were affected by Fregenti’s swindle.
The money that was lost also could have been used to pay for more equipment to help the business. The loss might’ve also led to some lay-offs, said Amaral.
“We probably would’ve kept a few more people longer,” he said while on the stand.
As for the restitution that came in late, it reminded Amaral of all the times he received bad checks or heard suspicious excuses whenever Fregenti explained why he never gave him a return on his investment.
“There’s always something,” Amaral said on the stand.
He continued to express how he feels about Fregenti honoring his sentencing requirement.
“If you know you’re set to do this … and the day before your hearing you don’t do what you’re supposed to do? I’m reluctant to say I’ll ever see (the money).”
Wayne Griner was another witness called to the stand by the state. He described several meetings he had with Fregenti. On one occasion, Fregenti pretended to be on the phone with the Saudi prince while he was sitting across from Griner. He would talk into the phone and then pressure Griner into a commitment to spend more money.
Griner said the deception worked. Eventually, after most of his fortune was gone, he came to the realization there was no Saudi prince on the other line. Fregenti lied to him about everything, he said.
Fregenti was the last witness called by the defense. He promised the victims he would make “leaps and bounds and jumps toward paying” the full restitution.
“I want to make everything right with the people sitting in court today,” he said.
There was one unusual development in court Wednesday. Shorstein listed three names of federal law enforcement officials, including one special agent with the F.B.I., who were present in the courtroom.
Shorstein said Fregenti, up until a few months ago, was providing information to the three men in connection with a federal investigation. Shorstein said he could not be specific because it was still an active case. He also wouldn’t call them to the stand because the men didn’t want details of their investigation to be exposed to cross-examination.
After Shorstein introduced them and the judge acknowledged them, the men exited the courtroom.
None of the attorneys mentioned them again.
Fregenti’s prison sentence is to be followed by 20 years of probation. He also is disallowed from making deals related to securities, real estate, time shares and insurance policies.
Fregenti pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sale of securities by an unlicensed dealer, 10 counts of sale of unregistered securities and one count of securities and investment fraud.

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