Federal authorities in Maryland have charged three men with running a $364 million Ponzi scheme for more than five years.
Kevin Merrill, Jay Ledford, and Cameron Jezierski were arrested Tuesday and charged with using 30 companies and more than 55 bank accounts to bilk hundreds of investors.
"The defendants lured investors through an elaborate web of lies, duping them into paying millions of dollars into this Ponzi scheme," said U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur of the District of Maryland in announcing the 14-count indictment, which was unsealed Wednesday.
Merrill, Ledford and Jezierski convinced investors to join them in purchasing consumer debt portfolios — batches of defaulted debts owed to banks and credit cards, student loan lenders and vehicle financiers that are sold to companies that then attempt to collect that debt.
The business partners told investors they would make money for them by selling the debt for a profit to third-party debt buyers. Instead, say prosecutors, the men used roughly $73 million of investor money to support lavish lifestyles. They spent investors' funds on high-end homes in Maryland, Texas, Nevada and Florida, luxury cars, boats, and jewelry, even purchasing a share of a jet plane and gambling $25 million at casinos.
According to prosecutors, the trio lied to investors about who they were buying the debt portfolios from and how much they were paying. In communications with investors, they also claimed they were investing their own funds and exaggerated their track record of success.
Jezierski, who allegedly played a smaller role, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Merrill and Ledford each face multiple 20-year sentences for wire fraud, money laundering and an additional two-year sentence for identity theft. In recent years, people found guilty of Ponzi schemes have received long sentences.
The indictment seeks the forfeiture of nine properties, 26 luxury cars, one boat, the purchased stake in a plane, a life insurance policy and multiple pieces of diamond jewelry, all allegedly purchased with proceeds of the scheme to defraud.
The men also face a civil suit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC stated in its filing that the victims of the Ponzi scheme include small business owners, construction contractors, retirees, doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers, talent agents, professional athletes and financial advisers.
"Most of these investors are just learning that they have been victimized," said Hur, the U.S. attorney. "The effects of this kind of fraud can be devastating. We urge anyone who thinks they may be a victim to contact the FBI at MerrillLedford@fbi.gov."
An attorney for Ledford did not immediately respond to a request for comment.