Friday, 8 August 2008

Man avoids prison for scheme preying on Cambodia immigrants
August 7, 2008
By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff

A Rhode Island man who pleaded guilty to participating in a pyramid scheme that bilked $27 million from some 500 victims was sentenced today to probation by a federal judge who cited the defendant's ill health and testimony against two others convicted in the scam as mitigating circumstances.

Federal prosecutors had recommended that Christian Rochon, 57, of Warwick, R.I., serve a decade in prison for his role in the scheme that preyed predominantly on Cambodian immigrants.

But US District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns said he had wrestled with the matter and concluded that Rochon deserved a sentence of five years on probation, the first spent in home confinement.

The judge said Rochon had nothing to do with hatching the scheme and was largely "a prop'' who did not even realize he was participating in a massive fraud until the scam began to unravel.

Stearns also credited Rochon for testifying against James Bunchan and Seng Tan, the couple who led the scheme. And the judge said he was convinced that Rochon, who has struggled with a heart condition, cancer, and other illnesses, would not survive prison.

"I'm persuaded ... that any period of incarceration would likely result in a death sentence,'' Stearns said.

Michael K. Loucks, first assistant US attorney in Massachusetts, who attended the sentencing, declined to comment afterward.

Rochon, who stood with apparent difficulty as he faced Stearns before he was sentenced, apologized to the victims, some of whom lost their houses because of the fraud.

"I’m very sorry for what happened to all of these people," he said.

Bunchan and Tan told investors from Long Beach, Calif., to Lowell between October 2000 and November 2005 that their money was put into World Marketing Direct Selling Inc. and an affiliated company, One Universe Online Inc., with several offices in Massachusetts, prosecutors said.

Investors who contributed a minimum of $26,000 were promised monthly payments of $300 for life and a one-time sum of $2,600. But prosecutors presented evidence that the payouts, which were made for a limited time, came from investors’ own principal or from money put up by other investors.

Bunchan and Tan spent more than $3 million of investors’ money on Mississippi riverboat gambling trips and Las Vegas casinos, millions more on a Florida home and fancy cars, $23,000 on hairpieces, and $5,000 for tennis lessons, prosecutors said.

Bunchan and Tan were convicted last year of numerous fraud and conspiracy charges and received long prison sentences from Stearns –- 35 years for Bunchan and 20 years for Tan.

Rochon’s lawyer, James B. Krasnoo, of Andover, said Bunchan originally hired Rochon to repair his computers and then duped him into believing he would be a legitimate president of the enterprise. Only toward the end did he realize it was involved in a monumental fraud, Krasnoo said.

Rochon received a company car and got a free trip to Las Vegas while working for the couple but did not lead a lavish lifestyle, Krasnoo said.

"If my guy were healthy, he would be doing time," Krasnoo said. "But his health is so bad that if he were sentenced to even a short period of time, it is likely he would die."

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