A Southern California minister caught in an undercover FBI operation targeting white-collar thieves aiming to swindle wealthy Californians in high-yield investment scams took a huge gamble Monday inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.
It's not usually advisable to tell a federal judge (particularly no-nonsense U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter) at your sentencing hearing following a jury conviction that you are unrepentant and want leniency in punishment.
But with a quivering voice, a well-dressed, silver-haired Moses Onciu of Fountain Valley told Carter that, despite a 2013 jury's verdicts, he's innocent of participating in a wire fraud scam that promised 50 percent weekly returns on a $1 million investment supposedly protected from risk by a secret government network involving the Federal Reserve and the CIA.
"I had no intent to defraud anyone," said a defiant Onciu, who most surely participated in contacts with presumed Newport Beach millionaire Tom Moore, who was in reality an undercover, senior agent in the Orange County field office of the FBI. "I can't in good conscience state that I committed a crime. I did not."
If he's guilty of anything, Onciu claimed it was of being naive about the machinations of his co-defendants, the existence of the secret financial world and the acting ability of FBI Special Agent Thomas Reitz.
Numerous individuals tied to high-yield investment scams have landed in federal court in Southern California and it's now clear that there's a misguided belief by these types of defendants that they are immune from convictions if they pepper their wild claims with cautions that their victims should consult their own lawyers before entering into deals.
Onciu, a self-described "Minister of the Gospel with Hope Industries and David & Goliath International Ministries, Inc.," tried that defense unsuccessfully at trial and retried at his sentencing hearing.
Assistant United States Attorney Lawrence E. Kole noted Onciu's lack of remorse and stated the investigation uncovered "ample evidence" that the defendant repeatedly lied in his sales pitch to the fake millionaire.
Carter rejected Onciu's posturing, stating that Kole's case for guilt had been "overwhelming."
But the judge, who served in horrific combat during the Vietnam War, found reasons to ignore federal sentencing guidelines that called for a punishment of at least 18 to 24 months: Onciu's lengthy military service and charitable work.
Earlier this month, three other defendants convicted in Carter's court for a similar investment scam began serving their prison sentences: Paul R. Martin, 30 months; Dennis J. Clinton, 30 months and William Joseph Ferry, 15 months.
(A jury acquitted Ronald Nolte of Florida and, though a federal prosecutor adamantly refused to label Richard Pundt--a former FBI agent and owner of Enlighten Technologies, Inc. in Iowa--innocent, he dropped his charges prior to trial after a mysterious Department of Justice meeting.)
Gerald Werksman, Onciu's defense lawyer, asked Carter to dispense zero prison time because his client is "an honorable man" who "got caught in (an FBI) trap."
Carter acknowledged he was impressed by the defendant's large turnout of about 30 friends and family members (including two sons who claim they work at the National Security Agency) at the hearing as well as his 13-year stint in the U.S. Army.
"You are going to go to prison," said Carter. "But I'm going to give you a break."
The judge then sentenced Onciu to a term of 12 months and one day.
Despite the defendant's con game "nonsense," Carter explained he considered Onciu in a separate category from Martin, Clinton and Ferry because of his "lifetime of goodness" through "legitimate" charitable works.
When he emerges back into society, the minister--who was born in 1956--will undergo supervised probation for two years, a period when he must not engage in any telemarketing or financial activities without permission of federal agents.
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Carter ordered Onciu to self-surrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons by noon on May 1.