Ponzi operator gets 10-year sentence
Crime • Travis Wright ran one of the biggest financial frauds in state history.
Published: January 6, 2012 07:11PM
Updated: January 8, 2012 11:36AM
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Travis L. Wright operated the Waterford Loan Fund and related companies as a Ponzi scheme. He faces sentencing for his guilty plea to mail fraud.

A Draper man who used millions of dollars of investors’ money to live in the luxury of an NBA star’s former home and go on hunting safaris to Africa was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison.

Travis Wright, 48, also was ordered to repay $43 million still owed investors who poured a total of about $145 million into his Waterford Funding and related companies. Wright’s venture turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and one of the biggest financial frauds in Utah history.

Michael Bodell of Bodell Construction Co. told U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups he lost $1.6 million, money that would have allowed him to retire. Bodell said after the fraud was exposed, he went with a real estate agent to view Travis Wright’s home, which was formerly owned by Utah Jazz star Jeff Hornacek on exclusive Walker Lane.

“He told me a story of how Travis spent $150,000 taking a beautiful swimming pool and relocating it eight feet,” said Bodell, who asked Waddoups to sentence Wright to the same 150-year prison term as infamous New York Ponzi operator Bernie Madoff.

“This case has the same level of deceit and evil attached to it,” he said.

Wright promised investors from Utah and other states up to a 44 percent annual return. But court documents show he lost money from nearly the beginning and started using monies from new investors to pay interest or principal to earlier ones in what is known as a Ponzi scheme. He siphoned off about $15 million for personal use, including paying for extensive trips abroad and for luxury autos.

Wright was charged in December of 2010 with one count of mail fraud. He pleaded guilty in May of last year after striking a plea bargain with prosecutors. But Waddoups rejected the plea bargain that would have given Wright eight years in prison, saying the sentence was too light given the magnitude of his crimes.

David Johnson, the new special agent in charge of the FBI office in Salt Lake City, said he was satisfied with the sentence imposed Friday.

“We think it’s fair,” he said.

James Malpede, who heads the FBI’s local white collar crime unit, said Wright’s cooperation saved agents months of investigations and related costs. Those factors were taken into account in sentencing and Malpede said he hoped it would spur cooperation from others.

Wright did not address the court because he felt whatever he said would interpreted as insincere, according to Wright’s court appointed attorney, Rob Hunt.

But Wright’s oldest son, Kit, asked for leniency, saying he and his brothers needed Wright.

“I cannot be a dad for my brothers,” said Kit Wright, who appeared to be about 20 years old. “I need him.”

A number of Wright’s friends and family members said they recognized he had committed a crime, but they urged Waddoups to recognize that he had been a good father and a Boy Scout leader.

“I don’t think the BSA has ever had a better Scout master,” said Mark Lambourne, a friend of Wright’s.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Hirata reacted strongly to the mentions by Lambourne and others of Wright’s Boy Scout service. Those scouts should be told that “it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do that truly defines your character,” Hirata said.

Waddoups also said Wright “could afford to be generous because he was being generous with other people’s money.”

The judge ordered Wright to report for transport to prison on March 5.

tharvey@sltrib.comTwitter: TomHarveysltrib