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A federal prosecutor showed a jury a conceptual photograph of a gleaming resort development in Lakeshore, Miss., Tuesday as the investment fraud trial of Maureen Clark got under way in Bridgeport.
"She said she was going to spend the money on this," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael S. McGarry said.
Then McGarry flashed a photo of New London's Lighthouse Inn with storm clouds in the background.
"And this is what she spent the money on," McGarry said.
Clark, 57, of Stonington, a former operator of the Lighthouse Inn, is accused of defrauding 12 investors in a resort project touted as the "Las Vegas of Mississippi" of $1.7 million and diverting the money to the ailing restaurant/inn, which has since been foreclosed. She is also accused of funneling investment funds to her business partner, Christopher Plummer, and for personal use.
As her trial got under way before Judge Warren W. Eginton, the government prosecutor and Clark's attorney, Hubert J. Santos, provided a preview of the case to the jury of 12 regular members and two alternates.
Clark's husband, adult children and other family members sat in the front rows of the courtroom while Clark, in a pinstripe pantsuit, sat with Santos and his associate, Jessica M. Santos, at the defense table.
McGarry said the government would be using testimony from investors, emails, tape recordings and Clark's bank records to prove its case against Clark, who he said is a "con artist."
"After she got the money, she moved it from account to account and used some of it to make the project look legitimate so she could keep up the facade," McGarry said.
Clark told the investors she and Plummer owned a 370-acre parcel in Lakeshore and that investment firms such as Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs had agreed to be partners. Clark actually had an option to purchase the land for $450 million, McGarry said, and in early 2007 she had to begin making payments of $45,000 a month to keep the option.
Also expected to testify is Christine White, a former Lighthouse Inn employee who says Clark told her the Mississippi project would raise money for the New London business, McGarry said.
Clark's attorney said the government is "dead wrong" about Clark, who was working on the Mississippi project right up until she was arrested in November 2010. Santos said the evidence would show that she is a hard-working woman who, like the investors, was deceived by Plummer.
"She wasn't out to scam anybody," Santos said. "She wanted the project to work. She acted at all times in good faith. She worked 24/7 to make this project work."
The government generated some 50,000 documents in its investigation and interviewed scores of witnesses, Santos said, but they never talked to Clark, even when she tried to explain herself when confronted by FBI agents in the dining room at her Stonington home.
Clark plans to tell her story from the witness stand when the defense puts on its case, Santos said. Clark had secured the option to purchase the development site in Mississippi and needed a major investor, he said.
At one point, she was close to receiving nearly $1 billion from an international corporation called Africa-Israel Investments, Santos said.
"She flies to Tel Aviv. She's that close to $990 million from them. At the last minute, the deal falls through," Santos said. He said the financial crisis that began in 2007 ruined the deal.
"You couldn't get a loan to open a mom-and-pop grocery store in the state of Connecticut or anywhere else," he said.
The alleged victims, Santos said, are sophisticated and powerful people, including lawyers and doctors. None of them have sued Clark to date.
"Do you think if the deal went through and the (investors) all got big fat checks, they would be here today?" he said.
The first government witness was Herman I. Abromowitz, a family doctor from Dayton, Ohio, who invested $250,000 with his family members. Abromowitz testified that Douglas Grossinger, an attorney from Pennsylvania, introduced him to the project. He said the promised return on investment within six months to two years was "astronomical and probably unbelievable" and that he was seeking such a short-term investment because he is in his 70s.
Abromowitz and his family liked the idea of investing in a post-Katrina development because they felt they would be helping rebuild the hurricane-ravaged area. The concept included plans for a medical center.
Plummer, Clark's longtime business partner and alleged co-conspirator, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and is awaiting sentencing.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.