BULLETIN: Appeals Court Upholds Federal Judge Who Departed From Sentencing Guidelines And Prosecution’s Recommendation — And Imposed Maximum Prison Term On Louisiana Ponzi Schemer

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has unanimously upheld the 30-year sentence imposed last year on Ponzi schemer Matthew B. Pizzolato by U.S. District Judge Lance M. Africk of the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Although Pizzolato had worked out a plea deal with prosecutors that included a nonbinding recommendation for Pizzolato to serve a maximum term of about 15 and a half years, Africk disregarded the recommendation and ordered an upward departure from federal sentencing guidelines  — effectively doubling the term prosecutors had sought.

Africk reasoned that Pizzolato’s $19.5 million Ponzi had subjected senior citizens and other vulnerable members of society to severe and ongoing harm, telling Pizzolato in open court that his fraud was one in which “a lot of people of modest means lost everything.”

Written words on “cold” court documents “will never reflect the depth of pain” of the victims, Africk told Pizzolato.

“In particularly despicable fashion, many of your victims were the most susceptible members of our society; all looked forward to some modest degree of comfort during their golden years,” Africk said.

“Weaving a web of deception and practicing predatory acts, you ruthlessly pounced on some of our most vulnerable citizens. You falsely represented yourself to be an attorney. These people trusted you with their life savings and you, in turn, devastated them. You stole savings desperately needed by these fine people to achieve the most basic needs of their life. Worrying that these needs will go unmet, many of our victims fear they will never recover from their loss. I feel the same.”

In sentencing Pizzolato to the 30-year maximum, Africk rejected the convicted swindler’s claims that he was an unsophisticated, 26-year-old man. The judge also considered the psychological damage suffered by victims, the number of victims (180), the reach and complexity of the scheme and the duration of the scheme (three years).

Africk remarked that he had “never seen a fraud-based crime more horrendous than the one” Pizzolato engineered, according to court records.

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