NAPLES — Former employees and investors in Naples-based Orion Bank want to make sure their faces are seen and their voices heard when the bank's former CEO is sentenced for his crimes.
That won't be possible for some if the sentencing hearing isn't moved. The hearing is now scheduled to be held in Orlando because the federal judge who has been handling the case in Fort Myers – Charlene E. Honeywell – has moved to Central Florida.
Nicole Waid, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, has filed a motion with the court for a change of venue, in hopes of bringing the hearing back to Southwest Florida.
Many people who want to attend the sentencing will be unable to if it's in Orlando "due to job responsibilities, financial burdens and time restraints," Waid wrote in her motion. Traveling to Orlando, about a four-hour drive, would be a "hardship," she argued.
She noted that the defendant, Jerry Williams, may challenge parts of a pre-sentence report and that, if he does, the government will need to call witnesses to counter his arguments. One of the government's potential witnesses is an 80-year-old man from the Naples area.
Williams pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges last month, talking for the first time in public about what he did to try to save the once-successful community bank. He told a magistrate that he and two other bank executives, Angel Guerzon and Thomas Hebble, came up with the scheme.
In the scheme, $80 million in loans were made to a borrower who was over his loan limit, with $15 million returned to the bank for the illegal purchase of stock.
The borrower, Francesco Mileto, pleaded guilty for his involvement. So did Guerzon and Hebble. The three have cooperated with investigators in the case against Williams.
Williams pleaded guilty to charges that he misapplied bank funds, committed fraud, entered false information in the bank's books and reports, obstructed a financial examination, and made false statements to the bank's regulators.
He faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of three counts. His recommended sentence would include supervised release after prison and restitution.
The co-conspirators are in federal prison and will have to pay restitution to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which lost more than $593 million when the bank failed.
Regulators shut down Orion in November 2009, days after Williams was ousted as CEO. Hundreds of shareholders in Orion Bancorp, the holding company, lost millions.
Attorneys representing Williams, who are based in Washington, D.C., haven't yet responded to the prosecution's request to move the sentencing back to Fort Myers. According to Waid's motion, Williams' counsel objects to the move because "it inconveniences the court." She said the government doesn't want to inconvenience the judge, but there's a need to accommodate the former shareholders and employees of Orion.
"Upon the demise of Orion Bank, many of the shareholders and employees suffered devastating financial losses, including the loss of retirement funds, college funds for their children, and life savings," Waid said. "This group of people has information regarding the defendant's background, character, and conduct, which is critical to the court's decision in fashioning an appropriate sentence for the defendant and they are requesting an opportunity to be heard at sentencing."
Williams no longer lives in Florida, so he wouldn't be inconvenienced by moving the sentencing back to Fort Myers, she points out in her motion.
Waid submitted letters with her motion from employees and shareholders who are pleading with the judge to return the hearing to Fort Myers. In one letter, a victim wrote that the hearing needs to be moved so "we may finally have our day in court and you can have the opportunity to hear from some of the former Orion employees ... who lost all their retirement savings and those shareholders who bought Jerry's lies about the bank's real financial condition."
A few dozen employees and shareholders may attend the sentencing if it's held in Fort Myers.
"The extra travel to Orlando adds an undue financial and emotional burden to an already upsetting situation," Waid wrote.