The “sultan” is not going away quietly.
Anthony Gignac, who authorities say posed as a member of the Saudi royal family to impress wealthy South Florida investors so he could rip them off, has been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea on impersonating a foreign government official, identity theft and fraud charges.
U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga granted Gignac’s request Thursday after his third attorney, Assistant Public Defender Ayana Harris, argued that he did not fully understand the evidence against him, the consequences of pleading guilty and the potential sentence while he was represented by two prior lawyers.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office opposed the withdrawal of Gignac’s guilty plea, saying he and his then-attorney, Steven Vitale, told the judge that he fully understood his decision in May. But the judge, who has the discretion to accept a plea withdrawal, said Vitale only represented Gignac for a few days and the lawyer’s “fleeting appearance” did not provide him with the “close assistance needed to ensure the plea was knowing and voluntary.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
As a result, Gignac, 47, is now scheduled for trial in January. While he was facing several years in prison under his former plea deal, he could now be imprisoned for a longer time if convicted on charges of conspiracy, impersonating a foreign diplomat, misuse of a passport, aggravated identity theft and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon.
Gignac, a Colombian-born man, posed as a wealthy Saudi prince and traveled the globe swindling millions from investors, according to an indictment.
When Anthony Gignac set his sights on Miami, he targeted super-rich real estate developer Jeffrey Soffer of Turnberry Associates, which owns the Aventura Mall and other high-end properties. At first, Soffer fell for the con man’s pitch to buy an interest in one of his hotels, even lavishing $50,000 in luxury gifts on the “sultan,” according to sources familiar with a federal investigation.
Gignac, using the alias “Sultan Bin Khalid Al-Saud,” pretended he wanted to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the landmark Fontainebleau resort hotel on Miami Beach, which had been renovated and expanded by Turnberry at a whopping $1 billion cost.
“Believing that Gignac was royalty and a Saudi Arabian diplomat, with the means to purchase the hotel, the [developer] expressed interest in the deal,” according to a criminal complaint, which did not mention the hotel or Soffer by name.
But over the course of negotiations last summer — including a business meeting between Gignac and Soffer in Aspen — the billionaire developer wised up, had his security team check out Gignac and reported his suspicions that he might be an impostor to the feds.
Soffer “became increasingly wary of Gignac,” the complaint said. One reason for the developer’s suspicions: Gignac happily wolfed down bacon and pork products during meals, which as a devout Muslim prince should have been against his religion, according to a source with knowledge of the case.
The original indictment charging Gignac and a business partner does not mention Turnberry Associates by name, only by the company initials “T.A.,” nor does it identify Soffer. But several sources familiar with the federal investigation say Soffer is among Gignac’s 26 victims worldwide from whom he stole a total of $8 million between 2015 and 2017. Soffer only lost $50,000 that he spent on gifts, including a Cartier bracelet, for Gignac before he figured out he was probably a con artist, according to court documents and sources.
Soffer and his Turnberry office did not respond to requests for comment.
Gignac, who was adopted by a Michigan family as a boy, grew up to become an international swindler, according to prosecutor Trinity Jordan. Despite prior brushes with the law, Gignac lived large in South Florida. With millions in stolen money, the prosecutor said, he bought up Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Rolex watches, Cartier jewelry and a two-bedroom condo on exclusive Fisher Island on Biscayne Bay.