When the parents of Jaime Gough won a $1.7 million settlement for the fatal stabbing of their 14-year-old son at a Miami-Dade public school, they invested some of the money with their accountant, Juan Carlos Rodriguez.
And when the husband of Rodriguez’s longtime secretary was dying of terminal cancer, the accountant convinced the couple to put some money into his side business of investing in stocks, bonds and precious metals such as gold.
What the two families didn’t know: The seemingly down-to-earth Miami accountant who did their taxes and invested their money was the consummate con man, who fleeced them and dozens of other clients who had trusted “J.C.” Rodriguez like a friend.
“I was devastated,” said Rodriguez’s former secretary, Araceli Valle, 51, of West Miami, whose husband died of lung cancer in September 2010.
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“Not only did I lose my husband, I lost a brother and a friend. This man came to my husband’s funeral with his wife.”
“To hit a family like the Goughs with such a low blow is despicable,” said their attorney, Gregg Schwartz, representing Jorge and Maria Gough, whose son was murdered in 2004 by his best friend at Southwood Middle School. “This Ponzi schemer knew the family’s whole tragic saga, and he still preyed on them because he was greedy.”
The 49-year-old Rodriguez, accused by prosecutors of stealing $1.9 million from 63 investors, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud. On Friday, he faces up to 6 ½ years in prison at his sentencing in federal court.
His attorney, Lane Abraham, declined to comment. But in court papers, he said only 48 victims lost a total of $564,000, which should reduce Rodriguez’s potential sentence to less than four years.
Rodriguez’s scheme was not as grandiose as those of imprisoned Ponzi figures such as Wall Street investor Bernard Madoff, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Scott Rothstein or Miami-Dade businessman Gaston E. Cantens. But the accountant shared a similar M.O., preying on people close to him and using the money of new investors to pay off old investors — until the money well dried up.
“Every day, for years on end, defendant Juan Carlos Rodriguez lied to scores of friends, family members and clients who trusted him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Luck wrote in a sentencing memo.
Luck said the accountant’s motivation was to steal other people’s money to support a “good lifestyle,” including a four-bedroom home in a gated community off Old Cutler Road, a beach house in Jensen Beach and a BMW for his wife.
While Rodriguez carried out the fraud between 2007 and 2010, his bank records showed he made $181,000 in mortgage payments, $229,000 in credit card payments and $105,000 in car payments.
“To pay for homes, and cars, and a nice lifestyle, Rodriguez was willing to sacrifice the well-being of a woman with a cancer-stricken husband and a man whose son had been brutally murdered,” Luck wrote in the sentencing memo.
Rodriguez ran his accounting business, Vares Tax, with a half-dozen employees out of a storefront on Coral Way in Miami. Under the same roof, the accountant also had an investment business, MDN Financial Group.
Rodriguez lured in his accounting clients, friends and relatives to invest with him, guaranteeing returns of 20 to 50 percent each month on his purported investments in stocks, bonds and gold. A total of 116 investors plunked down about $5 million, signing “investment management agreements” with his company, MDN, according to court records.
At the end of a six-month or one-year investment period, Rodriguez “induced” investors to renew their agreements without the return of any of their initial investment principal, according to court records. As he juggled their accounts, he sent “annuity” payments “to lull investors into a false sense of security and to conceal the false and fraudulent nature of the scheme,” according to records.
In late October 2010, Rodriguez vanished from his office. Several investors began calling and showing up at the office to complain that they had not received their monthly payments.
The employee who had to face their wrath: Rodriguez’s secretary, Valle, who had worked for him for 20 years.
She quickly realized that dozens of her bosses’ customers — including herself — had been duped.
On Oct. 27, 2010, Rodriguez sent Valle a text message, saying: “I am so sorry. I ruined your finances and betrayed your trust and love as a sister to me. I let you down big time and I feel really bad. I’m so sorry.”
Valle had lost about $90,000 — money that she and her late husband, Fernando, had invested with Rodriguez from a line of credit on their West Miami home.
“I told him in a text message, ‘You need to be a man, you need to show your face,’ ” Valle told The Miami Herald in an interview.
Valle, filled with fear and shock, hired a Miami criminal defense attorney, Michael A. Haber, to guide her through the fallout. Soon after, both of them paid a visit to the FBI to explain that Rodriguez had victimized her and dozens of others. They also wanted to make it clear to agents that she was clueless about his scam.
“She was not only not a part of it,” Haber said, “but she was as surprised as anyone else.”
Valle helped the FBI with the investigation by compiling a list of Rodriguez’s victims and their financial records. Other victims also spoke with the FBI about their investment losses.
Rodriguez, who was eventually indicted on a slew of wire fraud charges in March, struck a plea agreement three months later to avoid going to prison for up to 20 years. U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas will have final say on his sentence.
‘QUIET AT FUNERAL’
Valle, who plans to speak at Rodriguez’s sentencing hearing on Friday, wrote a letter that was filed in court by the prosecutor.
“When my husband died, I remember you sitting with your wife by yourself quietly at the funeral,” wrote Valle, a mother of two sons.
“At that time, I did not know that your greed was so great as to steal from me and my children, whose father had just passed away, and I can only wonder if I will ever get my money back.”
According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Valle, the Gough family and other victims of Rodriguez’s investment scheme will likely recover little, if anything, because he blew all their money.
“The bottom line is this: Rodriguez’s victims will never be paid back more than pennies on the dollar that they lost, and even that will come years down the line from now,” Luck wrote in the sentencing memo. “The only way to see that Rodriguez gets what he deserves is through punishment.”