GREENBELT, Md. (AP) — An investment adviser was convicted Wednesday of charges she defrauded investors out of millions of dollars, some of which she used to pay more than $800,000 for prayers by Hindu priests in India to ward off federal investigators.
A federal jury deliberated for roughly four hours over two days before convicting 56-year-old Dawn Bennett of all 17 counts in her indictment, including charges of securities fraud, wire fraud and bank fraud. The verdict came after a two-week trial in Maryland. Bennett was indicted last year.
U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis did not immediately set a sentencing date.
Prosecutors said Bennett used money that people had invested in her luxury sportswear company to finance her lavish lifestyle, including six-figure expenditures on astrological gems, cosmetic medical procedures and the religious rituals in India.
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Jurors heard testimony that Bennett paid a man in Washington state to arrange for Hindu priests to pray for her while her business was collapsing and she faced a Ponzi scheme investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
“I am in a very very tough fight going against my enemies and I need all the help I can get,” Bennett wrote in an email to Puja.net website operator Benjamin Collins.
FBI agents also found evidence in Bennett’s Chevy Chase home that she tried to silence SEC investigators by casting “hoodoo” spells, according to an FBI affidavit that accompanied her arrest last year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Agents found instructions for placing people under a “Beef Tongue Shut Up Hoodoo Spell” and found the initials of SEC attorneys written on the lids of Mason jars stored in Bennett’s freezers, the affidavit said.
However, jurors didn’t hear any testimony about paranormal practices during Bennett’s trial.
Prosecutors said Bennett didn’t tell investors she was using their money on Hindu prayers and other personal expenses. One of her attorneys insisted Bennett was free to mix her personal and business expenses.
Defense attorney Dennis Boyle also said his client’s religious practices are irrelevant.
“It should be free from government scrutiny,” he said. “The fact that her prayers look or sound different (is) of no consequence.”
Bennett used promissory notes to raise more than $20 million from at least 46 investors in her company, DJBennett.com, authorities said. Some of the investors were longtime friends. Others knew her from a radio show she hosted in the Washington, D.C., area.
Many of them lost their life savings or retirement funds when they gave their money to Bennett, who promised them a 15 percent return on their investment.
Bennett provided investors with falsified balance sheets and other fraudulent documents to her company appear profitable when it actually was in “abysmal” financial shape, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Bernstein told jurors at the close of the trial.
“The company was losing millions of dollars, year after year,” Bernstein said. “She lied to them.”
Boyle depicted his client as a fraud victim herself, saying she invested more than $8 million of her own money in her online business and relied on false financial numbers and records prepared by her company’s chief financial officer, Bradley Mascho.
Mascho pleaded guilty in June to conspiring to commit securities fraud and awaits a sentencing hearing. Neither he nor Bennett testified at trial.
“Dawn Bennett is actually the first victim in this case,” Boyle said.
Stuart Berman, Mascho’s attorney, declined to comment on Boyle’s claims about his client.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom said it was Bennett, not Mascho, who profited from the scheme.
“Ms. Bennett had no intention of helping her friends with these investments,” he said. “She wanted to help herself.”
The FBI’s investigation of Bennett began in December 2015 after the SEC formally accused her of defrauding investors by inflating the amount of assets she managed and exaggerating the returns on her customers’ investments. The SEC cited Bennett’s statements on her paid weekly radio show, “Financial Myth Busting With Dawn Bennett.”
Bennett used investors’ money to pay off other investors and for her own personal benefit, including more than $141,000 on astrological gems, more than $100,000 on cosmetic medical procedures and a $500,000 annual lease for a luxury suite at the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium, prosecutors said.