Baltimore, Maryland – Stephen Franklin, age 54, of Salisbury, Maryland, pleaded guilty today to a wire fraud conspiracy and to aggravated identity theft in connection with the theft of more than $1.8 million from Shore Appliance Connection.
The guilty plea was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Erek L. Barron and Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Sobocinski of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Baltimore Field Office.
According to his plea agreement, Franklin was the chief operating officer of Accurate Optical, a chain of optometric shops on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and with the owners of Accurate Optical he also purchased East Coast Optometric, a chain of South Carolina optical shops. Franklin and co-defendant Duane G. Larmore met through the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce and became friendly.
As detailed in the plea agreement, Larmore was an employee at Shore Appliance Connection (“Shore Appliance”), located in Salisbury, Maryland, whose duties included maintaining the books and records for the company. The company was owned and operated by Owner #1 and Owner #2. From mid-September 2016 through about March 2020, Franklin conspired with others, including Larmore, to steal more than $1.8 million from Shore Appliance.
Specifically, Franklin and Larmore stole over $1 million from Shore Appliance to use for their own purposes, including to make investments and to pay business expenses for Franklin’s businesses, without the knowledge and consent of the owners of Shore Appliance. For example, Franklin introduced Larmore to an individual who offered an opportunity to invest in an oil deal that promised quick and substantial returns, for an initial investment of $100,000. Franklin did not have $100,000 but knew that Larmore could obtain the investment funds from Shore Appliance. Larmore wire transferred $100,000 of Shore Appliance’s money to an account controlled by Franklin, who wire transferred the funds to an individual in the United Kingdom to invest in the oil deal. Those funds were ultimately returned to Shore Appliance because the name on the bank account did not match the named beneficiary on the wire transfer form completed by Franklin. Prior to the funds being returned and at Franklin’s urging, Larmore transferred another $100,000 to T.H., purportedly an attorney for the oil deal. Franklin also convinced Larmore to invest in other deals, including: in 2016, a $95,000 investment with GenFinance II, PLC, London, U.K., which then required an additional $300,000, and then additional funds for additional expenses and travel abroad; in 2018, an investment through W.S. of $35,000 and an investment through Gateway Capital of $50,000; and in 2019 - 2020, investments and expenses through I.P. and E. P.-S. to recover assets in the custody of U.S. Customs, part of the Department of Homeland Security. No investment paid any return to the schemers.
To conceal how much money had been removed from Shore Appliance and to obtain cash to invest, Franklin suggested that Larmore enter into factoring contracts. Franklin had experience with borrowing operating funds for his optical companies from factors and provided Larmore with the names and contact information for factoring companies. Factoring is a means by which businesses, can obtain cash quickly by leveraging accounts receivable. With Franklin’s encouragement, Larmore applied for a factoring contract for Shore Appliance without the knowledge or approval of the owners, corporate directors, or officers of Shore Appliance. As detailed in the plea agreement, the factoring contracts provided cash deposits to Shore Appliance’s bank accounts but encumbered the accounts receivable of Shore Appliance and required payments and interest of more than $725,000.
To obtain contracts with factoring companies for Shore Appliance and to conceal the fact that the Shore Appliance owners were not aware of and had not approved the factoring contracts, the signatures of the owners were forged, and the fraudulent signatures were witnessed or notarized by Franklin. Further, Larmore and a female employee of Franklin’s posed as the owners in telephone conversations with representatives of the factoring companies to confirm their approval of the factoring contracts. In addition, to conceal Larmore’s embezzlements and the factoring agreements, Larmore caused Shore Appliance to draw on Shore Appliance’s lines of credit with two separate financial institutions to obtain another $200,000 in cash. As of March 2020, Shore Appliance still owed $208,394.92 in principal and interest on these lines of credit.
Finally, when Franklin’s business began having financial difficulties, Franklin requested that Larmore provide funds from Shore Appliance for Franklin’s companies. Larmore provided funds to Franklin for his businesses, including to pay rent and employee salaries, as well as paying to rent a storage facility and hire trucks to move equipment and office furniture when Accurate Optical was evicted from its Salisbury, Maryland office in July 2019. All the while, Franklin continued to suggest that Larmore put money into other investment schemes, which Larmore did.
In all, Larmore paid $739,295.28 of Shore Appliance’s funds, without the officers and owners’ knowledge or consent, to invest in fraudulent schemes that never paid any money back. Of that amount, $395,000 was moved through bank accounts controlled by Franklin. Franklin caused an additional loss of $171,548.67 by having Larmore transfer funds to Franklin or to Franklin’s companies. As a result of the conspiracy and efforts to conceal the losses, Shore Appliance lost an additional $731,250.07 in fees and other payments to factors and to factoring brokers. Shore appliance also paid extra interest in the amount of $208,395 from Larmore drawing on its bank lines of credit. Thus, the factoring arrangements and advances on Shore Appliance’s lines of credit in total caused Shore Appliance to lose in actual funds $939,645. However, Shore Appliance as of March 2020 still owed the factors almost $270,000. For all of Franklin’s and Larmore’s conduct, actual cash losses to Shore Appliance totaled $1,850,488.94 and intended losses totaled $2,137,674.74.
Franklin faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for a wire fraud conspiracy and a mandatory sentence of two years in federal prison, consecutive to any other sentence imposed, for aggravated identity theft. U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow has scheduled sentencing for September 7, 2023, at 9:30 a.m. As stated in his plea agreement, Franklin will be required to pay restitution in the full amount of the victims’ losses, which the parties stipulate is $1,850,488.94. Franklin’s liability is joint with co-defendant Duane G. Larmore. Duane G. Larmore, age 48, of Salisbury, previously pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing.
United States Attorney Erek L. Barron commended the FBI for its work in the investigation. Mr. Barron thanked Assistant U.S. Attorneys Evelyn L. Cusson, Joyce K. McDonald, and Leo J. Wise, who are prosecuting the case.
For more information on the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, its priorities, and resources available to help the community, please visit www.justice.gov/usao-md and https://www.justice.gov/usao-md/community-outreach. For more information about resources available to report fraud, please visit https://www.justice.gov/usao-md/report-fraud.
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