FORT MYERS — A local banker’s fall from grace has landed him in prison.
Once a revered banker, Jerry Williams, the ex-CEO of Orion Bank in Naples, will go to prison for six years and will pay restitution to his victims.
The sentencing caps off a years-long saga that put three of his co-conspirators behind bars in October for their involvement in a bank fraud conspiracy that prosecutors said helped bring down the once-admired community bank.
Williams, 52, learned his fate Tuesday at a sentencing hearing that lasted four hours in federal court in Fort Myers. His attorneys fought for a lighter sentence, arguing his crimes were mistakes he made in a panic only to save his bank.
U.S. District Judge Charlene E. Honeywell saw it another way.
“I think it was more about greed, really, than it was about saving the bank,” she said before announcing the sentence. “It was really about saving Jerry Williams.”
She considered the fact that he had no prior record and cited the letters of support she received for Williams, including a few from his former employees.
Orion employees and other shareholders lost millions when the bank failed and their stock became worthless. Many hoped for a stiffer sentence.
“Six years is better than nothing,” said Patrick Miller, a former senior vice president for Orion. “I think it’s far less than he deserves.”
Bill Bartels, Orion’s former director of human resources who worked at the bank for 12 years, agreed.
“I wanted more,” he said. “I think a lot of us wanted more. I lost my retirement.”
He estimated his losses alone at more than $700,000.
Under a plea agreement, Williams faced a sentence of up to 15 years on three counts involving bank fraud.
Prosecutors told the judge not to go easy on him, arguing he was the most responsible for the conspiracy as the head of the bank who called the shots. He was the president, CEO and chairman of Orion and its holding company, Orion Bancorp Inc.
Williams admitted to orchestrating a complex scheme that involved illegally raising more capital for Orion and selling off bad loans to a borrower to make his failing bank appear in better financial shape than it was to regulators. In the scheme, more than $80 million in loans were made to a borrower, Francesco Mileto, who was over his loan limit, with $15 million returned to the bank for the illegal purchase of stock.
Williams apologized in court.
“Your honor, I take full responsibility for my actions and the mistakes I’ve made,” he said sternly, facing the judge. “I’m deeply saddened. I deeply regret my conduct and I appreciate any consideration that I receive from you today.”
Employees and other shareholders in the courtroom were disappointed that he didn’t turn to them to apologize.
Nicole Waid, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, described the scheme as a last-minute attempt by Williams to save his own finances, as the bank’s largest shareholder and the one who stood to lose the most if Orion failed.
“This was fraud at the highest level,” she said.
Williams, she said, used Orion as his own piggy bank. Even as the bank was failing, Williams was selling off his personal stock for his personal gain, Waid said.
The hearing drew more than 50 to the courtroom, including many longtime employees who became a close-knit family working at Orion.
Miller was the only former employee and shareholder to speak in court. He pleaded for the maximum sentence, saying Williams’ “despicable behavior and his arrogant demeanor continues.”
“Williams is a prime example of company executives who reap excess profits at the expense of others,” he said. “His quest to become powerful in the world of banking was overshadowed by his increased selfishness and greed. He lost his moral compass.”
He and others were happy to hear the judge say “greed” during the sentencing.
“Greed was his driver the whole time,” said Sandy Forsyth, a former vice president of deposit operations for Orion.
She lost more than $1 million in stock when the bank failed, she said, after being with the bank for 26 years.
Yvette Saco, who was a senior retail administrator for Orion, said she hopes Williams’ time in prison will make him a better person.
“I knew he wouldn’t get 15 years because it was his first offense,” she said. “I was hoping for at least 10. I was expecting five. So I’m OK with it.”
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William Sullivan, one of Williams’ attorneys from Washington, D.C., declined to comment immediately after the hearing. Later, he sent out a statement, saying Williams was disappointed with the judge’s decision. Williams’ three co-conspirators received sentences ranging from two years to five years and five months.
“He did not profit one dollar from his actions, and in fact lost everything when Orion failed,” Sullivan said. “If anything, his greatest failure was that he fought too hard to keep the bank afloat.”
Williams has 14 days to appeal. The amount he will pay to his victims isn’t yet determined. For now, Williams has agreed to partially pay back four shareholders who bought his personal stock as the bank faltered. They include one of his closest friends at the time, pro football coach Dave Wannstedt, and Walter Krumm, a Naples investor who purchased $10 million of stock.
Williams’ sentence includes 50 hours of community service and supervised release for three years after he gets out of prison. He must turn himself in within 60 days to start serving his time.
Jerry Williams, the ex-CEO of Orion Bank in Naples, will go to prison for six years.
A federal judge handed down the sentence late this afternoon in a Fort Myers courtroom.
Under a plea agreement, Williams faced a sentence of up to 15 years on three counts involving bank fraud. He asked for leniency, but prosecutors told the judge not to go too easy on him, arguing he was the most responsible for the conspiracy that landed three of his co-conspirators in prison late last year.
Originally, Williams faced the possibility of life in prison. A 13-count indictment carried a maximum sentence of 220 years.
Williams signed a plea deal in December. Each count he’s pleaded guilty to carried a sentence of up to five years.
The prosecution argued Williams directed the bank fraud scheme and blamed him for the failure of his once highly successful community bank.
Williams unsuccessfully fought to keep the bank’s former shareholders, employees and other witnesses from testifying against him at the hearing, which started at 1 p.m. on Tuesday in federal court in Fort Myers.
His high-powered attorneys argued he shouldn’t be judged only by his wrongful actions, but “in the larger context of his life.” They portrayed him as a family man, a caring employer, a devoted business leader and philanthropist — and generally as a good man who made “one mistake under relentless pressure.” Many of his victims saw him a different way.
Hundreds of shareholders, many of the bank employees, lost millions when the bank failed in November 2009.
Williams admitted to orchestrating a complex scheme that involved illegally raising more capital for Orion and selling off bad loans to a borrower to make the failing bank appear in better financial shape than it was to its regulators.
Return to naplesnews.com later today for more on this developing story