Former Owner of Empire Towers Pleads Guilty for Fraudulent $7 Million Bond Scheme and Filing False Tax Return
Misled More Than 50 Individual Investors Who Bought Bonds
A former Queenstown, Maryland, resident pleaded guilty today to securities fraud and filing a false tax return.
The guilty plea was announced by U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein of the District of Maryland, Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Kelly of the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) Washington, D.C., Field Office and Special Agent in Charge Stephen E. Vogt of the FBI’s Baltimore Division.
In 1999, Wilfred T. Azar III, 53, became the president and majority owner of Empire Corporation and exercised complete control over the operations of Empire. Empire Corporation owned Empire Towers Corporation. Empire Towers Corporation’s primary asset was Empire Towers, a 10-story office building in Glen Burnie, Maryland.
According to Azar’s plea agreement, by January 2006, Empire Corporation could no longer pay its expenses and was effectively insolvent. By 2007, Empire Towers Corporation had exhausted its lines of credit from lending institutions.
From January 2006 to April 2010, Azar caused Empire Corporation to sell bonds to more than 50 individual investors for more than $7 million. While many of the bonds were titled “registered,” the bonds were not registered with either the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or the state of Maryland. In addition, Azar falsely told investors that Empire Corporation was in good financial health and that the company generated enough revenue to pay the promised 10 percent annual rate of return. Azar falsely represented that the money invested would be used for a specific renovation project or other capital improvement at the Empire Towers office building. Azar failed to inform investors that he used most of the money raised from previous bond sales for his own personal purposes. Although the bonds were issued by Empire Corporation, Azar diverted millions of dollars of proceeds from the bond sales to his own bank account and to the bank accounts of other companies that he controlled.
During the period of the fraud, Azar misappropriated approximately $7,219,362 in investor proceeds raised through the sale of bonds. Azar used the bond proceeds: to purchase a $100,000 Aston Martin luxury automobile; to pay the $3,000 monthly mortgage on his primary residence; to pay $51,000 to an Azar trust; to purchase Baltimore Ravens season tickets for $17,298; and to pay $25,389 in country club dues. In addition, Azar charged more than $420,000 to a credit card paid by Empire Management Services, including daily living expenses, lavish vacations and university tuition for one of his children. Azar also diverted more than $1.07 million in Empire funds to other unrelated businesses he controlled under the guise of “loans” which were never repaid.
During 2009, Azar embezzled approximately $1,959,250 in Empire funds, which he failed to report as income on his tax return. This resulted in a tax loss to the government of $469,936.
Azar faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for securities fraud, and a maximum of three years in prison for filing a false tax return. U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. has scheduled sentencing for Aug. 12 at 10:00 a.m.
The SEC has also filed a complaint against Azar and another individual in connection with the scheme, and that case is pending.
Today’s announcement is part of efforts underway by President Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF) which was created in November 2009 to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. With more than 20 federal agencies, 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices and state and local partners, it’s the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud. Since its formation, the task force has made great strides in facilitating increased investigation and prosecution of financial crimes; enhancing coordination and cooperation among federal, state and local authorities; addressing discrimination in the lending and financial markets and conducting outreach to the public, victims, financial institutions and other organizations. Since the inception of FFETF in November 2009, the department has filed more than 12,841 financial fraud cases against nearly 18,737 defendants, including nearly 3,500 mortgage fraud defendants. For more information on the task force, visit www.stopfraud.gov.
U.S. Attorney Rosenstein praised the IRS-CI, FBI and SEC for their work in the investigation. Mr. Rosenstein thanked Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Bockin of the District of Maryland and Trial Attorney Kenneth Vert of the Justice Department’s Tax Division, who are prosecuting the case.