Former real estate investment guru Rick Koerber told jurors Wednesday in his federal court trial that he used investors’ monies to pay promised interest on loans, but he was not operating a Ponzi scheme.
In his third day on the witness stand, the former Utah County businessman was asked by attorney Marcus Mumford if he had used loans from investors to make interest payments.
“Sometimes,” Koerber replied.
Koerber, who once brought in investors to fund his “Equity Milling” businesses, faces 17 charges from an indictment that alleges he was directing a Ponzi scheme, which is generally understood to be a business in which investor funds are used to pay returns to other investors to project the illusion of profitability and keep new monies flowing in.
A federal grand jury indictment alleges Koerber’s operations took in nearly $100 million from investors then gave back nearly half as payments to investors who were promised returns of 3 percent to 5 percent a month, or 36 percent to 60 percent a year.
“I was aware of what a Ponzi scheme was back then,” Koerber testified, noting it was a business that “runs out of money and has nothing to show for it.”
In contrast, Koerber said he said he looked at the companies’ balance sheets every day and “never borrowed money [from investors] we didn’t have assets against.”
He said he ensured the investor funds were being used productively, and he claimed that “most of the money was not used to pay interest.”
And when he did, Koerber said it made financial sense to use investor loans secured by equity in property instead of selling that property at a time when real estate values were increasing. Doing so would mean losing any potential gains and cash flows, he said.
From about 2004 through 2007, Koerber touted a business model in which homes were purchased for below market value and then could be rented out to generate a cash flow.
But FBI forensic accountant Angela Mennitt testified earlier in the trial that from 2005 to 2007, when Koerber’s businesses became illiquid, they earned little revenue even as Koerber’s interest payment obligations rose sharply as his companies took in more and more money.
Koerber’s two main real estate companies, Hill Erickson and New Castle Holdings, had negative equity on their books of $17.3 million while his operations had $89.4 million in outstanding promissory notes, Mennitt testified.
Mumford, however, has pointed to a rescission offer Koerber made to investors that claimed in 2007 the properties had $124 million in market value based on appraisals. Those appraisals have not been entered into evidence.
Koerber also made an effort on Wednesday to separate himself from dozens of investors whose money went into his operations through a smaller ring of investment funds, some of them controlled by Koerber’s business partners and friends.
Mumford showed video clips to jurors of a November 2006 class he gave about creating investment funds in which he said his companies didn’t accept investors and he demanded participants not ask him about it. But earlier Koerber had said by that time he and a business partner had made a decision not to take in money from new investors.
Koerber is scheduled to return to the witness stand on Thursday for a fourth day of testimony.