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Prosecutor: Peregrine founder admits to fraud

Russell Wasendorf Sr. front Peregrine Financial Group Inc. last year Cedar Falls Iowa.  |  Rick Chase~Waterloo Courier

Russell Wasendorf Sr. in front of the Peregrine Financial Group Inc. last year in Cedar Falls, Iowa. | Rick Chase~Waterloo Courier

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Updated: October 14, 2012 1:42PM

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The founder of brokerage Peregrine Financial Group Inc. has signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in which he admits to carrying out a $200 million fraud and embezzlement scheme that bankrupted his company, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Prosecutors said Russell Wasendorf Sr. will plead guilty to mail fraud, embezzling customer funds and two counts of making false statements to regulators. U.S Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles confirmed the agreement but hasn’t ruled on the matter. Iowa-based Peregrine operated as PFGBest, with a large presence in Chicago, where his firm’s failure struck a blow to an industry still dealing with missing funds from the 2011 collapse of MF Global.

Prosecutors said the agreement calls for Wasen­dorf to be sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.

Details of the agreement were made public during a hearing in federal court in Cedar Rapids called to determine whether Wasendorf should be freed from jail pending his plea hearing and sentencing.

Prosecutors have asked the judge not to release Wasendorf, who listened intently as FBI agent William Langdon laid out the case against him.

FBI agents arrested Wasendorf, 64, days after he tried to commit suicide. Prosecutors said he left a suicide note detailing how he duped regulators by falsifying bank statements to exaggerate the money that appeared to be in the firm’s accounts. The arrest came while he was hospitalized at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and by then court records show he already had been cooperating with investigators.

After his arrest, Wasendorf waived his right to an immediate detention hearing, but he requested one last week.

Tuesday’s development came as regulators try to unravel the complicated finances of Peregrine and partially compensate customers who have not been able to access their funds for two months. The trustee overseeing the company’s bankruptcy outlined a plan last week for an initial distribution of $123 million in assets to about 17,000 customers, who would receive 30 percent to 40 percent of the assets they held with the firm. The payments would start by the end of September.

But the company’s regulator, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, raised concerns about the plan in a filing Sunday, arguing payments should not be processed until accounts can be verified as valid. The commission said its preliminary investigation uncovered more than $45 million in “fictitious bookkeeping entries and unusual activity” in customer accounts.

“The CFTC does not favor unnecessarily delaying customer distributions, and believes that the innocent customers of the Debtor should be compensated for their losses as soon as reasonable and practicable,” agency lawyers wrote. “Nonetheless, caution is warranted to ensure that the books and records of the Debtor may be relied upon to avoid the possibility of distributions based on fictitious data.”

A hearing on the plan from trustee Ira Bodenstein, which would hold back $58 million in company assets, is set for Wednesday in federal bankruptcy court in Chicago. Bodenstein said additional distributions will occur, but no one will get 100 percent of their money back.

Associated Press,
with Business Reporter
David Roeder contributing

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