South Florida

Finally, ‘fake sheikh’ follows the script and pleads guilty in Miami to con jobs

Colombian-born Anthony Gignac posed as a wealthy Saudi prince and traveled the globe swindling millions from wealthy investors from Miami to London, federal prosecutors say.
Colombian-born Anthony Gignac posed as a wealthy Saudi prince and traveled the globe swindling millions from wealthy investors from Miami to London, federal prosecutors say. Miami-Dade Police Department

This time, finally, the “fake sheikh” followed the script.

Without his usual drama, a stoic Anthony Gignac pleaded guilty Tuesday to impersonating a Saudi prince in a scheme to fleece wealthy investors from Miami to London who sank $8 million into business deals that he lied were backed by Saudi Arabia’s royal family.

“You are not, and were not, a Saudi prince,” U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga said, as she read from a statement that Gignac signed along with his plea agreement.

Gignac, 47, admitted that he pretended to be a member of the Saudi royal family so that he could try to snooker investors — including the owner of the Fontainebleau resort hotel on Miami Beach — to pay for his luxurious lifestyle on Fisher Island overlooking Biscayne Bay. After a couple of false starts, Gignac had pleaded guilty to fraud charges last May, only to ask the judge to let him withdraw the plea deal in August because of claims that his previous attorneys had left him in the dark on certain defense issues.

On Tuesday, Altonaga was taking no chances. She repeatedly questioned whether his current and fourth attorney, Ayana Harris, with the federal public defender’s office, effectively advised him — to preempt any problems down the road after his sentencing on April 29.

“I am satisfied with Ms. Harris,” said Gignac, who wore his long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I am also aware that this plea deal is the best thing for me.”

Altonaga pressed Gignac because under charges filed anew in January, he faces a maximum of 52 years in prison for his conviction on wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, identity theft and impersonating a foreign diplomat. She reminded him that his potential prison time is 20 years more than he would have faced under his previous plea agreement.

“He had a far better deal ... and now he’s facing a far longer prison sentence,” Altonaga said.

“I understand, your honor,” said Gignac, who acknowledged that he had turned down the previous plea deal after it was withdrawn in August and prosecutor Frederic Shadley offered it to him again. He made it clear that his lawyer, Harris, had “no influence” over his final decision to reject the more lenient prior offer.

Gignac, who was born in Colombia and became a U.S. citizen after his adoption by a Michigan family, has lived in Miami on and off for years. He posed as a Saudi prince and traveled the globe swindling millions from investors, according to court records.

His former plea deal reached last May says that Gignac and his partner created a fraudulent investment company, Marden Williams International, in 2015 for purportedly legitimate business opportunities around the world.

In sales pitches, Gignac and his band of co-conspirators represented that he was a member of the Saudi royal family and had exclusive business deals — including a private offering in a Saudi Arabian company, prosecutors said. One investment victim from Switzerland poured $5 million into that deal.

Then in March 2017, Gignac targeted new prey in Miami. He again pretended to be a Saudi prince with $600 million in a bank account as he went shopping for an upscale hotel. He set his sights on super-rich real estate developer Jeffrey Soffer, who owns the landmark Fontainebleau resort hotel on Miami Beach. At first, Soffer fell for the con man’s pitch to buy an interest, even lavishing $50,000 in luxury gifts on the “sultan,” according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Gignac, using the alias “Sultan Bin Khalid Al-Saud,” pretended he wanted to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the Fontainebleau hotel, which had been renovated and expanded 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 in the summer of 2017 — 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 to the feds that he might be an impostor.

Soffer “became increasingly wary of Gignac,” according to court records. 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 sources with knowledge of the case.

The original indictment charging Gignac and a business partner, who is now deceased, does not identify Soffer. But several sources say Soffer is among Gignac’s 26 victims worldwide from whom he is accused of stealing a total of $8 million between 2015 and 2017.

Jay Weaver writes about bad guys who specialize in con jobs, rip-offs and squirreling away millions. Since joining the Miami Herald in 1999, he’s covered the federal courts nonstop, from Elian’s custody battle to A-Rod’s steroid abuse. He was on the Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2001. He and three Herald colleagues were Pulitzer Prize finalists for explanatory reporting in 2019 for a series on gold smuggled from South America to Miami.