Published January 22. 2014 7:00PM Updated January 22. 2014 11:42PM
Former Stonington resident Robert Ponte, described by federal prosecutors as a central player in real estate and Ponzi schemes that cost investors and lenders more than $25 million, was sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Hartford to 90 months in prison followed by five years of supervised release.
U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny will order restitution at a later date.
Ponte, 59, once lived at 49 High Ridge Drive in the Pawcatuck section of Stonington in a home that the government said he obtained fraudulently, according to court documents. He has been living more recently with his parents in Denville, N.J.
Ponte pleaded guilty in the middle of a trial in March 2013 to two counts of conspiracy, 14 counts of wire fraud and two counts of tax evasion. His co-conspirators, Robert Rivernider of Wellington, Fla., and his sister, Loretta Seneca of Boynton Beach, Fla., also pleaded guilty.
According to the government, Ponte and Rivernider used the Internet and other means to defraud investors of a "No More Bills" debt repayment program of about $3 million. The investors typically borrowed the funds from home equity lines of credit or their 401(k) retirement plans with the promise of receiving returns of 7 to 10 percent. Ponte and Rivernider used the funds to pay for living expenses and for the pre-existing debts of other investors, according to the government. The men operated the scam from June 2005 to April 2008.
In a second scheme, Rivernider, Ponte and Seneca recruited borrowers to take out financing to purchase various investment properties, primarily in Tennessee and Florida, with financing from victim lenders. While representing that the properties were being sold at deep discount, Rivernider and Ponte marked up the price, often by as much as 25 percent, and falsely represented that the properties would produce sufficient income to cover the expenses and reduce the borrowers' debt burden.
Ponte recruited his parents, who were retirees, to obtain financing for his Stonington home, defrauding a lender of $625,000, according to the government. Real estate records indicate Thomas and Barbara Ponte purchased 49 High Ridge Drive, a 5,346-square foot gambrel on 1.96 acres, for $1,275,000 in December 2006. The property was foreclosed by the lender, Bayview Loan Serving LLC, which sold it for $625,000 in March 2012.
Ponte's attorney, Jodi Zils Gagné of Bristol, asked the court to impose a sentence of 12 to 18 months in prison, with home confinement. She wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Ponte was uninformed about the schemes and never intended to harm anyone. She said Ponte had served as the president of the chamber of commerce when he lived in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and was a devoted family man and volunteer.
"He wished to help people, but unfortunately did not do as much homework on the subject as he should have done," Gagné wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys John H. Durham and Christopher W. Schmeisser called for a sentence of no less than 180 months, saying the losses "were plainly reasonably foreseeable to (Ponte), even if he had hoped for a different outcome."
Ponte was the primary marketer of the No More Bills plans and used "whatever story it took to separate the victims from their money," according to the prosecution. Testimony at the trial indicated he told customers their money would be invested in Russian currency trading, complex overseas hedge fund platforms and gold trading in Panama.
Rivernider was sentenced in December to 12 years in prison. Seneca awaits sentencing.