A foreign exchange investment opportunity that would provide a five-fold return on your money in just five months. An exclusive deal in which emeralds were imported from Brazil by a minister, with a buyer already lined up and the return at three times your investment within 90 days. Little risk.
Too good to be true? Yes, it was.
The Utah Securities Commission has issued an unusually high fine of $413,750 to Jack Phillips, 79, of Lebanon, Oregon, after finding he violated Utah laws by defrauding two couples out of several hundred thousand dollars.
One of the Utah victims, Sherry Reutlinger, said Thursday that she had suffered physically, mentally and socially after she and her husband lost more than $100,000 to Phillips.
“Right now, with this happening with Jack, I don’t know who to trust anymore,” Reutlinger said, describing a nervous breakdown and physical problems that resulted.
In 2006, Phillips was involved with a multi-level marketing company called Guardian International Travel, which sold worthless discounted passes for stays in condominium but which also promised high returns through trading in foreign currencies. The FBI has described Guardian as an “illegal pyramid/Ponzi” scheme.
Phillips convinced the Reutlingers, and Bill and Gidgette Persch, also Utah residents, to join by saying they did not have to do anything other than invest in order to realize huge returns, according to the Utah Securities Commission order.
But Phillips failed to disclose his previous guilty plea to an illegal gambling charge in Oregon and the risks of trading in foreign currency, the track record of Guardian and whether he should have been licensed to sell securities.
Later, Phillips pitched the couples and others on investing in a shipment of what were supposedly gem-grade raw emeralds from Brazil. He touted an experienced buyer, a minister from Kentucky, who would bring the uncut gems to the United States where a buyer was going to pay four times more than their purchase price, said Keith Woodwell, director of the Utah Division of Securities.
While actual material was imported to the United States, it turned out of be low-grade and unsuitable for gems.
“There was never a buyer lined up. There were never any gem-quality emeralds,” said Woodwell.
Phillips can appeal the decision to the Utah Court of Appeals. One of his attorneys, Mark Pugsley, said such an appeal is being considered, but he also said his client was the victim of selective enforcement.
Phillips was only a seller for Guardian International Travel and victims named in the Utah case also sold for the company, Pugsley said.
“Why weren’t they prosecuted as well?” he said in an email,
He also said Phillips himself was a victim of the emerald scam, losing $225,000 of his own money.
“So it is troubling that the division chose to sue one of the victims and was able to obtain a large fine even though our client never received any financial benefit,” Pugsley said.
Phillips and Guardian International Travel officer James Elliot were hit with criminal charges in 3rd District Court in 2012, but the case was dismissed because the time limit to bring it had been exceeded.
Woodwell then personally prosecuted the civil case before the Utah Securities Commission, a panel of citizens appointed by the governor to sit as a jury in investment-related administrative cases brought by the Utah Division of Securities and the Attorney General’s Office.
The commission ordered Phillips to pay a $315,000 fine for losses suffered by investors, $78,750 for violations of state law and $25,000 in investigative costs. Phillips can receive credit if he repays investors. If not, the state can provide investors any money it recovers through a whistleblower law, Woodwell said.
Elliot also was named in the civil case but failed to respond and now is liable for the fines along with Phillips, Woodwell said.
Woodwell called the case “a cautionary tale.”
“It’s another example of when it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is,” he said. “There’s no guaranteed deal to triple your money in 90 days and in this case it was pitched to these people as a secretive, exclusive deal, where only the select few were going to offered this.”