- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

RICHMOND, VA. (AP) - A Miami businessman accused of bilking nearly 600 people across the country out of $126 million and using the money on a personal jet, a yacht and other luxuries was convicted Thursday on 23 counts, including fraud and money laundering.

After a three-week trial, a federal jury deliberated over two days before finding Edward Hugh Okun guilty of all charges. Four counts previously had been withdrawn or dismissed.

Okun stood, his head solemnly bowed, as the verdict was read. He faces up to 400 years in prison when he is sentenced Aug. 4.

Rob Wagner, the federal public defender, told reporters he will appeal.

Okun, 58, owned two Richmond companies that held money from clients seeking to defer capital gains taxes on property sales.

The scheme eventually collapsed, leaving many of his clients unable to reclaim their money.

Several victims who attended the trial embraced one another and prosecutors as Okun was led away by federal marshals. Bonnie Schloss of Silver Spring, Md., who said she lost $335,000 from the sale of a house she had purchased with an inheritance, choked back tears.

“It doesn’t bring back the money, but it does make you feel like somebody paid attention and cared about us,” said Schloss, 59.

Barry and Sandy Cogan of Short Hills, N.J., said they lost about $500,000 from the sale of a small strip mall that had been in Sandy Cogan’s family since the late 1920s.

“I think it was just and it was fair, and I think he will never ever again be able to destroy peoples’ lives,” said Barry Cogan, 67. “This page in our lives has been turned.”

Okun, who lived in a waterfront mansion, operated companies known as “qualified intermediaries,” which held property sellers’ proceeds in escrow. The Internal Revenue Service allows sellers to defer capital gains tax if they deposit the proceeds with a qualified intermediary until they can buy a replacement property.

Prosecutors said Okun spent clients’ money on commercial real estate investments and personal luxuries, and kept the scheme going by purchasing additional qualified intermediary companies, giving him access to more cash.

Defense attorneys said qualified intermediaries are unregulated and Okun thought he could use the money as he pleased as long as the clients were repaid. They said everyone got their money until the real estate market tanked. They also said an Okun associate who disapproved of his methods hid millions of dollars.

Along with the fraud counts, Okun was convicted of making a false statement and illegally smuggling $15,000 cash to his yacht in the Bahamas.

Three former Okun associates previously pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme and will be sentenced May 1. One agreed to a 10-year term and two face up to five years in prison.

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