IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — If he ever writes a book about his stunning 20-year fraud scheme, disgraced Iowa businessman Russ Wasendorf Sr. must give the profits to the government that he fooled for so long.
Federal prosecutors on Thursday made public their full 17-page plea agreement with the founder of Cedar Falls-based Peregrine Financial Group, two days after a hearing in which the deal was described in general terms. The agreement says Wasendorf must assign any profit to the government that he makes “in connection with any publication or dissemination of information relating to” his crime.
Wasendorf also cannot help associates or family members profit from the story, and any proceeds generated from publicity must go toward paying back the roughly 24,000 customers expected to lose money in the scheme.
Wasendorf, 64, has agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud, embezzling customer funds and making false statements to two regulatory agencies, the National Futures Association and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In the agreement, Wasendorf acknowledged that he embezzled and misspent more than $100 million in investors’ funds on himself, to keep Peregrine afloat and on other business interests, such as an upscale restaurant he opened.
Wasendorf faces up to 50 years in prison and a fine that could be twice the amount his customers lost, which hasn’t been calculated yet. He agreed to help investigators track down his personal assets so they can be sold to repay swindled customers.
Wasendorf has asked to be released from the Linn County jail pending his sentencing hearing, which hasn’t been scheduled. A judge is expected to rule by Friday on the request for Wasendorf to live with friends in Iowa, including a Lutheran pastor who has been counseling him.
The agreement dryly lays out the fraud and embezzlement scheme to which Wasendorf took sole responsibility in a note found with him in July following a failed suicide attempt in his car in his company’s parking lot. The agreement says Wasendorf secretly withdrew customer funds and then used a computer to make false bank statements to conceal the theft from auditors, regulators, customers and his colleagues.
Wasendorf gave fraudulent bank statements to his own accounting department showing fictitious deposits and balances, which were then entered into the company’s accounting system. The false numbers were used to generate monthly reports to regulators showing the company was holding more than $200 million in customer funds than it actually had.
Wasendorf also fooled auditors with the National Futures Association, the industry’s self-regulator, by changing the bank’s address in the fake statements to a post office box that he controlled. The auditors would mail forms to the address asking the bank to verify the account balances that Peregrine reported; Wasendorf would send back false documents purporting to be from the bank backing up his inflated numbers.
Ironically, given how long he managed to conceal his fraud, Wasendorf blamed overzealous regulators for his demise, calling them “the Gestapo” of the financial industry and accusing them of driving companies out of business or overseas. In his suicide note, which was made public in its entirety Thursday, Wasendorf said he began forging documents after a CFTC regulator he embarrassed punished him in the early 1990s with audits that ended with Peregrine having to increase the amount of funds it held.
“I have to say I don’t feel bad about having deceived the regulators,” he wrote. “During the last 30 years that I have been exposed to them they have become more and more mean-spirited. … Well, they can put another feather in their hat! They have successfully put another firm out of business.”
Prosecutors also released copies of separate notes he left for his son, Peregrine President Russ Wasendorf Jr., and Nancy Paladino, an Illinois woman he secretly married days earlier in Las Vegas. Wasendorf informed his son of the marriage and that his new wife was now “the heir to the majority of my estate,” including his three homes and Romanian construction company, and that it was his “dying wish that you help her.”
Wasendorf wrote that he was typing his note to Paladino because “my hands are shaking so much I cannot write.”
“I love you so much and I so wanted to spend my final years (growing) old with you,” he wrote. “I am so sorry that will not happen. … My death is the only way that I can protect you from long-term harassment.”
Paladino has filed for an annulment, saying the marriage occurred under false pretenses. But Linda Livingston, the pastor and friend of Wasendorf, testified Tuesday that Paladino only did so to avoid lawsuits stemming from the company’s collapse and that she still loved Wasendorf. In fact, Livingston said, Paladino has volunteered to move back to Iowa to live with him if Wasendorf is released.
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