BALTIMORE - Cameron Jezierski was stoic but offered his attorney a brief smile as proceedings wrapped up at the federal courthouse. This wasn't where he'd expected to land. He'd imagined that before he was 30, he'd be a millionaire.
Instead, the 28-year-old from Texas had signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors this month that cast him as a minor player in a sprawling $360 million Ponzi scheme that bilked hundreds of investors in Maryland and Virginia. Prosecutors said it was dreamed up by his employers. When Jezierski walked out of court, he would be an admitted felon for life.
At the courthouse, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joyce McDonald described a scheme led by two others - Kevin Merrill of Towson, Maryland, and Jay Ledford of Texas - in promoting "investor confidence that they could entrust their funds to what was really a criminal enterprise."
Jezierski faces a $116,435 fine and a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, though his term could be much less because of the plea agreement. Merrill, 53, and Ledford, 55, both face civil and criminal charges. Attorneys in the criminal and civil cases have filed motions to dismiss the charges.
Jezierski admitted in his signed plea agreement to participating in "a scheme and artifice to defraud and to obtain money and property from investors by materially false and fraudulent promises" and that he "knowingly and willfully" worked with other people to do so. The scheme affected investors including doctors, retirees, accountants and current and former professional athletes.
An attorney for Jezierski did not respond to requests for comment. Merrill did not have a lawyer listed in court documents.
Jim Jamison, an attorney representing Ledford in the civil case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, described his client as "a very small player" in the alleged fraud.
"There was no conspiracy," he said. "Merrill was involved in buying consumer debt, but he has not been for quite some time."
According to a copy of the plea agreement obtained by The Washington Post, Jezierski participated in the scheme for about 10 months, culminating in a set of indictments in September 2018.
The three men are accused in court papers of duping more than 400 investors with "an elaborate web of lies" to give the impression that they were running a successful investment operation profiting from student and consumer debt. In reality, prosecutors say, the men fraudulently diverted investors' money to maintain a criminal operation in which funds were cycled from one investor to the next.
The trio offered investors the chance to profit from consumer debt portfolios ― in this case car, student loan and credit card debts that people have defaulted on, with assets that could be eligible for seizure. Prosecutors alleged the defendants were diverting the payments they received for those investments into their own pockets and to pay off earlier investors. They say investors were cheated out of more than $360 million.
Arnoldo Lacayo, a partner at the firm Sequor Law who specializes in financial fraud, said the idea of so-called "fake debt" is a common thread in Ponzi schemes, which leverage a real or perceived economic crisis to lend an air of credibility to an otherwise dubious investment opportunity, he said.
"A lot of Ponzi schemes will have some sort of current event that is part of what entices people to get involved," Lacayo said. "We hear all the time about the coming calamity in student loans, about people defaulting on car loans. . . . If you're presented an investment opportunity to get ahead of that trend, it might not sound far-fetched."
Ledford and Merrill used the proceeds of their fraud to enrich themselves and sustain lavish lifestyles, prosecutors said. According to court documents, the two men together bought more than 20 high-end automobiles, including Porsches, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces; mansions in Florida, Maryland, Texas and Las Vegas; more than $8.3 million in fancy watches, jewelry and collectibles; a boat; and an interest in a private jet. They blew $25 million gambling in casinos, according to documents.
Prosecutors said Jezierski began working for Ledford as a financial data analyst at Riverwalk Financial in Texas in October 2014.
They said Jezierski learned if he submitted financial statements that did not meet certain targets, Ledford would be angry. Jezierski began submitting false information and setting up fake companies, the prosecutor said, to satisfy Ledford and defraud investors.
"Jezierski's trend lines based on actual operations were not satisfactory to Ledford because the trend lines did not show sufficiently robust collection results," according to the plea agreement.
"Jezierski had to falsify data to create reports that matched Ledford's directions," the plea agreement says.
Over time, Jezierski became an important participant in a scheme that predated his involvement and benefited his employers, according to the deal. Jezierski became chief operating officer in 2017 and was drawn into the scheme.
According to text messages cited in court documents, Ledford at one point texted Merrill, "Cameron is working on it too. I have him with the program. He gets it."
Ledford allegedly pressed Jezierski to hide his activities, at one point telling him via text message, "Need all of this to be discreet. . . . We do not want anyone to know details," according to the plea agreement. Jezierski responded: "I got your back. No one knows anything nor will they."
While working for Ledford, Jezierski had a salary of $80,000 but made significantly more in bonuses, the plea agreement states. Ledford had told Jezierski he would make him a millionaire before his 30th birthday and dangled the goal in front of him as the pair finalized a purported investment deal weeks before the Justice Department charged them.
"Almost 30. I am confident you will reach your goal we discussed," Ledford said in September. Jezierski had hoped to progress even further: "I have your back like always and this is just the beginning," Jezierski told Ledford after receiving a $50,000 bonus, according to the plea agreement.
The scheme was uncovered when an undercover FBI agent was offered the opportunity to invest $10 million by Merrill, the Maryland-based defendant, last summer. At a meeting in Dallas involving all three defendants, Jezierski offered the undercover FBI agent financial documents about the business that the plea agreement notes were "fraudulent."
Prosecutors say the criminal activity did not end when the three men were charged. Using coded phone calls and handwritten notes held up to the glass wall separating prisoners and visitors where he was held, Merrill told his wife to retrieve wads of cash from their white-gated waterfront mansion in Naples, Florida, which the two referred to as "the restaurant," according to documents.
Jezierski's sentencing is Aug. 12, a month after Merrill and Ledford are scheduled to stand trial.