By Leon Worden/SCVNEWS.com
One Santa Clarita man was sentenced Monday and a second local man awaits trial on fraud and money laundering charges related to a bogus debt collection agency they ran out of Bakersfield, Monrovia and Anaheim.
Stefan Lemar Miller, 32, pleaded guilty in September and was sentenced Monday by U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii to six years and nine months in federal prison. A co-conspirator, Darrian Jeffrey Summers, 41, of Taft, was sentenced to eight years. Paul Anthony Vasquez, 27, faces trial in February.
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Federal prosecutors list Miller and Vasquez as residents of Santa Clarita – although there is some indication Miller may have moved from Santa Clarita to Sacramento shortly before his arrest.
The U.S. Attorney’s office filed a 23 count indictment Dec. 16 against Miller, Vasquez and Summers, charging them with wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering and conspiracy for their roles in a scheme to bilk more than $2.7 million from clients of their companies – Maxwell, Turner & Associates in Bakersfield; Stanley, Morgan & Associates Inc. in Monrovia; and related entities.
An affidavit sworn out Dec. 1, 2010, by IRS investigator Kulbir S. Mand alleges the scheme began in February 2009 when Miller and Vasquez set up a debt collection agency and “engaged in numerous currency transactions in an attempt to conceal and-or disguise the ownership of the money.”
It says Miller was listed as president and CEO of Maxwell, Turner & Associates. “However, in the course of this investigation it became apparent Vasquez is the true owner/operator behind MTA, not Miller. Vasquez and Miller are friends from childhood.”
It says MTA’s website listed a Fresno address but that the “true” business address was in Bakersfield, where the company employed 15 to 20 people “who would cold-call potential new clients.”
“MTA operated a sophisticated website that claimed to collect debt and offer a wide range of services,” the affidavit says, under the names of Nationwide Legal Support, Free Skiptracing on All Accounts, and Timely Remittances.
“However, these claims of debt collection and services are a ploy to trick clients into providing money to MTA without any true resolution of debt by MTA,” it says.
MTA didn’t request money up front from clients, but “after the client signed the contract, (the defendants) would provide false information to their clients about legal proceedings and the whereabouts of the debtor and the ability to collect the funds. This was a ploy used by MTA to get their clients to send them money in hopes of a larger return.”
“In fact when money was collected from the debtor, MTA would not send the money to their clients. MTA would continue to request additional payments from their clients that had already made payments to MTA. This would continue until MTA exhausted all of their ability to get money from their clients. Once the client stopped sending money to MTA, they would stop communication with their clients.”
The affidavit alleges that “hundreds of clients” were duped.
Sixty-five complaints had been filed with the Kern County District Attorney John Mitchell and another 33 were pending at the time the affidavit was filed. Included with the complaints were copies of mail and FAX correspondence from MTA to clients; thus the wire and mail fraud charges.
The money laundering charges stem from a review of the principals’ bank accounts. MTA made $2.816 million in bank deposits from February 2009 to May 2010, of which $2.754 million was tied back to client victims.
During that time, Miller’s personal bank account showed $692,000 in checks he received from MTA. From May 2009 to May 2010, Miller withdrew a total of $1.713 million in cash from both his own account and from MTA’s account.
“These cash withdrawals represent money laundering violations,” the affidavit states.
However, according to the affidavit, “these transactions were conducted by Miller on behalf of Vasquez, who was the true conductor of the cash withdrawals.”
Miller and company shut down MTA in May 2010 and reopened as Daniel, Meyers & Associates Inc. in Monrovia, and as as Stanley, Morgan & Associates Inc. in Anaheim.
Vasquez allegedly used a number of aliases including Jonathan Turner, Gary Marshall, Gregory Marshall, Ian Maxwell and Steven Hammer. A confidential witness who dropped dime on the defendants told Bakersfield police officers that Vasquez’s mother-in-law was also in on the scheme.
Another confidential witness said she was hired as a telemarketer, and Vasquez would “often entice the employees with cash bonuses to anyone who could bring in the biggest check for the day,” according to the affidavit. She said Vasquez made all MTA employees use aliases “to conceal their true identities.” She described Vasquez as “unpredictable and violent.”
A third confidential witness said Vasquez lived near Stockdale Highway in Bakersfield with a woman and three children, but as of December 2010, the FBI had issued a warrant for his arrest in Los Angeles County. The third witness said Vasquez’s in-laws lived on Larkspur Street in Sylmar.
The Bakersfield police officers caught up with the other defendant, Summers, at Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, where he was being held on a parole violation for narcotics possession. He’d been hiding out in Los Angeles County until his arrest on April 12, 2010.
Summers told the Bakersfield police offers Vasquez would shoot him if he squealed.
Assistant United States Attorneys Mark J. McKeon and Stanley A. Boone are prosecuting the case.