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LA Real Estate Developer Arrested for Alleged Role in $1.3 Billion Ponzi Scheme

Although the U.S. construction industry was worth approximately $1,162 billion in 2016, it’s often the realtors and the developers that stand to make a lot of money — especially when they cater to the high-end buyer. But as one real estate developer is finding out the hard way, the allure of the almighty dollar may have proven to be a little too tempting. Now, Robert Shapiro is facing federal charges for his alleged role in a $1.3 billion Ponzi scheme that reportedly involved an iconic news anchor and many elderly investors.

Shapiro, the 61-year-old owner of the Woodbridge Group of Companies, and two other former company executives have been accused of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, along with money laundering and other violations of federal law. Shapiro allegedly swindled thousands of investors in a Ponzi scheme — a form of fraud that involves paying earlier investors from funds from more recent ones, under the premise of maintaining a profitable business — that supported his luxurious lifestyle. Federal prosecutors maintain that Shapiro and the executives promised investors property-secured loans, but the money “invested” was actually put towards the Woodbridge’s own shell companies to finance other projects, namely the financing of luxury properties in both Florida and California through unsecured loans. According to investigators, Shapiro also took $35 million for himself, spending over $3 million on chartering private planes, $6.7 million on a home for himself (plus $2.6 million on home renovations), $1.8 million on personal income taxes, $1.4 million for his ex-wife, and upwards of $672,000 on high-end cars. When the scheme ultimately collapsed, the Woodbridge Group was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2017.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had already accused Shapiro and the Woodbridge Group of civil violations of securities laws back in 2017, which resulted in the agency ordering Shapiro and the company to pay $120 million as part of a settlement deal. But now, the trio faces criminal charges. Among the charges filed is a new civil complaint against Shapiro’s two former executives, who stand accused of violating securities registration, broker-dealer registration, and anti-fraud provisions of federal law. Even after facing bankruptcy, Shapiro and his executives allegedly continued to sell fraudulent investments without informing investors that the company was teetering on the verge of collapse. From October to December of 2017, they raked in more than $52 million in investor funds prior to filing for Chapter 11 in the last month of 2017 — a move that caused investors to suffer substantial losses.

All told, Shapiro bilked more than $1 billion from a group of investors that included ABC News anchor (and former White House Communications Director under President Bill Clinton) George Stephanopoulos. Shapiro’s group of investors also included at least 2,600 elderly individuals who had devoted their retirement savings to the cause. Although 76% of recent buyers found their real estate agent to be a very useful source of information, these investors (read: victims) cannot say the same for the developer who led them astray and stole their hard-earned money.

All three parties have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. According to the Los Angeles Times, Shapiro’s former executives were released on bond, but the ringleader still remains in custody. Shapiro’s attorney told the newspaper that his client “denies the allegations in the indictment and will vigorously defend himself in the appropriate forum.”


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