In Las Vegas, where once in three hours he spent more than $8,000 of investors’ money on drinks and tips, he was nicknamed “Jose Big Spend.”
But standing in a Seattle federal courtroom Thursday to be sentenced for defrauding investors who put $31 million into his Peruvian real-estate projects, Jose Nino de Guzman Jr. struggled to speak between sobs.
“No excuses,” he choked out, acknowledging he had wreaked financial and emotional havoc on his 200 investors.
When money started rolling in to NDG Investment Group, the firm he launched in 2006 at age 23, “I lost myself entirely and I turned my back on my family and everything they taught me,” Nino de Guzman told U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik.
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Lasnik sentenced Nino de Guzman to 10 years in prison for the one count of fraud and one count of money laundering to which he pleaded guilty. The two years he’s spent in custody pending trial will count as time served.
Upon release, Nino de Guzman faces three years of probation with strict financial controls and close supervision, as well as $18 million in court-ordered restitution — money Lasnik told investors they should not expect to recoup.
Born in Peru, Nino de Guzman was brought to the U.S. by his parents at age 10. He attended the University of Washington until dropping out to work full time at U.S. Bank as a low-level personal banker. Both his banking expertise and his stint at UW were exaggerated when he started pitching his real-estate plans to local investors, according to prosecutors.
While Nino de Guzman raised $31 million for some two dozen office and residential real-estate projects in Peru, he spent relatively little on the ventures, prosecutors said. NDG promised returns as high as 40 percent, but early investors got repaid from money invested by later ones.
Of $21 million the investors put in Nino de Guzman’s hands, only $6 million was sent to Peru, according to prosecutors. (An additional $10 million from a single investor was wired directly to Peru.)
Instead, Nino de Guzman spent millions on “the most expensive toys a person could have,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Arnold told Lasnik.
He bought a white 2008 Bentley Continental GT for $200,000, a $600,000 yacht, a $365,000 platinum engagement ring and a foxtail rug for $11,500, according to court documents. Over the course of his fraud, he spent almost $800,000 in nightclubs, restaurants and bars.
Arnold said some investment operations deteriorate into Ponzi schemes when things go awry and well-intentioned entrepreneurs want to stave off a collapse. But he said Nino de Guzman diverted investors’ money all along, spending for himself all but $50,000 of the $120,000 raised in his firm’s first year.
Nino de Guzman told the judge that when he started taking investors’ money for his own use, he believed that “what we had in Peru was so good, and so profitable, that I could borrow against future earnings.”
Lasnik said the words “lavish lifestyle,” often used to describe high-living perpetrators of financial frauds, “don’t come close” to capturing Nino de Guzman’s spree.
“This was an obscene expenditure of funds,” Lasnik said, “beyond anything the court has seen before.”
Lasnik said he wasn’t questioning Nino de Guzman’s emotional display before the court. But with “a proven con man,” he said, “it’s hard to know where the person ends and the performance begins.”
Rami Grunbaum: 206-464-8541 or firstname.lastname@example.org