Crime

They promised they could finance films. Instead, they bilked millions, feds say.

Benjamin McConley and Jason Van Eman billed themselves as producers and financiers.

They offered to provide financing to investors and other producers working on motion pictures, theater performances and other projects, court records show.

The problem, U.S. authorities say: It was a “scheme to steal money,” as the men never intended to follow through on their promise.

McConley, 37, of South Florida, Van Eman, 41, of Oklahoma, and a third man, former Wells Fargo Bank employee Benjamin Rafael, 30, of South Florida, now face federal charges of fraud and money laundering.

McConley and Van Eman were arrested Monday. Rafael was arrested Saturday.

Investigators say over a six-year period — from 2013 to 2019 — the men bilked tens of millions of dollars from investors, producers and lenders who signed fake funding agreements, according to an indictment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release Monday that the men “guaranteed that the victims’ cash contributions or loans would be ‘matched’ dollar-for-dollar.”

The funds would then be used to secure loans from financial institutions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

The victims were told to deposit money into an account and were promised the matching funds would follow, records show. But the victims were transferring money into “bank accounts that were actually controlled by McConley and his co-conspirators,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

“According to the funding agreements, McConley and Van Eman were to apply for a line of credit from the bank using the monies held in the secure bank account as collateral,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. “During the course of the alleged scheme, McConley and Van Eman falsely and fraudulently assured victims that lines of credit had been applied for and approved by the financial institutions associated with the purportedly secure bank accounts.”

The men didn’t make good on any of their promises, investigators said.

“In truth, McConley never ‘matched’ the victims’ contributions or loans as promised in the funding agreements,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. “Instead of fulfilling their promises to victims, it is alleged that McConley and Van Eman stole the victims’ money by transferring funds from the purportedly secure bank accounts to McConley and Van Eman’s personal and corporate bank accounts, often within days of the victims’ contributions or loans.”

Investigators say McConley and Van Eman directed Rafael, 30, a onetime Wells Fargo Bank employee, “to falsely assure victims about the security of their funds,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

“During the course of the scheme, Rafael falsely told victims that their contributions or loans had been ‘matched’ and that McConley and Van Eman had applied for lines of credit at Wells Fargo Bank as promised in the funding agreements,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in the news release. Rafael was fired from Wells Fargo in 2015.

But the men told their clients that Rafael worked there, the indictment says.

“McConley, Van Eman, and Rafael also created and transmitted false and fraudulent bank documents, including purported bank letters, account signature cards, and deposit account balance summaries,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in the news release.

Eventually, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, the victims started asking for their money back and the men blamed “bank compliance issues.” The denial led to civil suits.

To protect themselves, McConley and Van Eman hired an online reputation management firm to “hide negative information about them,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

“Throughout the course of the charged scheme, McConley, Van Eman, and Rafael used stolen money to purchase luxury automobiles, personal watercraft, real estate, jewelry, home furnishings, designer clothes, hotel accommodations, and private and commercial air travel,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in the news release.

McConley and Rafael made their initial appearances on the charges before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisette M. Reid in Miami on Monday. Van Eman made his initial appearance on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The men are facing up to 20 years in prison on the wire fraud conspiracy and wire fraud charges, and up to 10 years in prison on each of the money laundering conspiracy and money laundering charges.

Carli Teproff grew up in Northeast Miami-Dade and graduated from Florida International University in 2003. She became a full-time reporter for the Miami Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news.
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