A Ponzi scheme that swindled unsuspecting investors out of millions of dollars has landed a former Gunnison accountant behind bars.
District Court Judge J. Steven Patrick sentenced Laverne “Vern” Moter, 50, to 24 years in prison this past Thursday — the maximum presumptive sentence for the two counts to which Moter pleaded guilty this past May.
Over the span of four years beginning in 2009, Moter solicited more than $2.6 million from investors, promising hefty rates of return. However, a Colorado Attorney General’s office investigation found that Moter paid initial investors returns on their money with finances garnered from new investors — all while living a lavish lifestyle himself on the life savings of those victims.
Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber indicated that Moter spent investors’ money on past debts, credit card bills and “lifestyle.” A credit card bill for one month alone totaled $56,000. At the same time, Moter bought his wife a new Mercedes and used investors’ money to purchase a new home in Las Vegas.
Even at the time of Friday’s hearing, Slothouber noted that Moter rented a home in Encinitas, Calif., valued at about $1.5 million with a view of the ocean and paid $29,000 per year in private school tuition for three kids. Moter’s immediate family was not present for the sentencing hearing.
Yet, Slothouber argued that through the course of Moter defrauding others, he was “flat broke,” and that’s why he continued to seek investors, only furthering the scheme.
‘I had big goals and big dreams’
In his defense, Moter indicated that his intent from the beginning was to make money for his clients. He recalled running an accounting firm in Gunnison when he first met many of those people — among them, Gunnison’s CJ and Anne Miller, who Moter befriended but later swindled out of $535,000.
“My business started growing but candidly not as fast as I wanted it to,” Moter said. “I had big dreams and big goals.”
After seeing success himself in “real estate deals,” Moter said that in 2009 he began gathering money from investors for the same purpose, forming a company called American Undeveloped Real Estate that sought to buy land and turn it for a profit.
However, the AG investigation showed that Moter never purchased any real estate as intended. Moter said he later pursued a video advisement business in an attempt to pay back the investors.
“It was all about me and my image, because I didn’t want my clients to view me poorly,” he said. “When things started getting challenging, I left.”
After moving from Gunnison to Wyoming and then Las Vegas, Moter filed for personal bankruptcy in California in 2013.
Numerous victims in the case called for the maximum sentence.
Among them was Heidi Bagus, who lost more than $1 million to Moter, was forced to sell her horses and cattle and take early Social Security payments just to afford her mortgage. However, Bagus later lost her farm and home and currently lives temporarily in a one-bedroom house with her boyfriend Gail Frank of Hotchkiss — who also was defrauded by Moter.
“My life is destroyed at this point,” Bagus said. “It’s gone. Nothing can fix it. Restitution now is not going to solve my problem.”
Restitution or time in prison?
Still, during the hearing Denver-based defense attorney Shazam Kianpour presented a check for $40,000 in restitution to Judge Patrick, indicating that another $25,000 would be coming in the days that followed.
“I know that’s not $2.5 million, but it’s not bad for three months of work,” the attorney said of earnings Moter has made by legitimate means.
Moter’s current business offers tax advice — an enterprise he established following the charges and the realization that he would need to find a legal business that didn’t require licensure. Kianpour argued that sending his client to prison would eliminate the possibility of victims continuing to receive meaningful restitution.
As a result, Kanpour requested a 90-day jail sentence, a “very long probation sentence” and a suspended prison sentence.
“Make Vern Moter put his money where his mouth is,” he said.
Yet, Assistant AG Slothouber noted that even at a lofty rate of $200,000 per year paid in restitution, plus required interest, it would take Moter 20 years to repay the victims. As a result, Slothouber argued that Moter has no motivation to pay restitution because it’s unlikely he would ever pay it off entirely in his lifetime.
Additionally, Slothouber noted that in the five years since the last victim was defrauded, Moter did not present a dime of money owed until the check brought to Friday’s hearing.
“It is only with the executioner’s sword above his neck that he can scrape any money together to repay these victims,” Slothouber said. “He has had five years to build something. He has built something. He runs a profitable business and makes six figures a year. He has paid them nothing. … It’s just pie in the sky promises over and over again.”
Judge Patrick agreed. In addition to the 24-year prison term, he sentenced Moter to five years parole.
“These were your clients. They trusted you,” Patrick said. “I have to conclude that your actions speak louder than your words.”
As of Tuesday, Moter remained in the Gunnison County jail prior to being transferred to the Department of Corrections.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)