Three Individuals, Including Former General Manager And Controller, Charged In Embezzlement Scheme At Sonnen Motorcars
Approximately $6.3 Million Allegedly Embezzled from 2010 to 2016
SAN FRANCISCO – Amir Bakhtiari, Arlette Casino, and Austin Caba were arrested today for their respective roles in an alleged conspiracy and fraud scheme, announced Acting United States Attorney Alex G. Tse; Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett; and Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI), Special Agent in Charge Michael T. Batdorf.
According to the indictment, from at least 2010 to 2016, Bakhtiari, 50, a resident of Newport Beach, Calif. and formerly of Marin County, Calif., orchestrated an embezzlement scheme at Sonnen Motorcars (“Sonnen”). Sonnen owned and operated three car dealerships in Marin County—Sonnen Volkswagen, Audi Marin, and Porsche Marin. From 2009 to 2016, Bakhtiari managed the Volkswagen and Audi dealerships. Bakhtiari allegedly used his role to initiate a scheme wherein Sonnen made payments on fraudulent invoices to fake advertising vendors who then forwarded the majority of the proceeds from Sonnen back to Bakhtiari. The indictment alleges that Casino, 47, a resident of Santa Rosa, Calif., who served as controller of Sonnen from 2013 to 2016, and Caba, 38, a resident of Burlingame, Calif., who controlled one of the fake advertising vendors, conspired with Bakhtiari and participated in the scheme since at least 2013.
According to the indictment unsealed today, Bakhtiari caused others to create shell entities with names suggesting that the shell companies were in the business of advertising. The shell companies were controlled by friends or associates of Bakhtiari’s, including Caba. These entities were Advision Advertisers, Elite Marketing and Advertising, Pacific Blue Advertising, and ARC Sierra Promotional & Incentive Co. (ARC Sierra). The indictment alleges ARC Sierra was controlled by Caba. Bakhtiari then allegedly created or caused the creation of fake invoices from each of the fake advertising vendors to Sonnen, purporting to bill Sonnen for advertising work. Along with the controller, which from 2013 to 2016 was Casino, Bakhtiari approved the payments on these fake invoices from Sonnen’s bank accounts, in the form of checks written to the fake vendors. In sum, the indictment alleges that from 2010 to 2016, Bakhtiari directed approximately $6.3 million in fraudulent transfers in this manner. When the money reached the vendor bank accounts, the individuals who controlled these accounts wrote checks back to Bakhtiari for a majority of the funds. In total, Bakhtiari received approximately $3.6 million via checks in this manner. Caba also allegedly used funds embezzled from the ARC Sierra bank account to pay the balance on an American Express credit card account that he shared with Bakhtiari. The indictment alleges Bakhtiari and Caba spent approximately $1.7 million on this American Express credit card account.
According to the indictment, Bakhtiari and Casino also initiated other fraudulent payments to themselves, including bonuses that Bakhtiari falsely claimed were funded by the corporate offices of Volkswagen or Audi. Bakhtiari and Casino approved the payment of these fraudulent bonuses, knowing they were not authorized by the majority owner of Sonnen Motorcars.
Bakhtiari, Casino, and Caba were all charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, and wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343. Bakhtiari and Caba were also charged with conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h), and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1957.
An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If convicted, the maximum penalty for each count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud is twenty years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for each count of conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity is ten years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
All three defendants were arrested today in California by the FBI – Bakhtiari was arrested in Newport Beach, Caba was arrested in Burlingame, and Casino was arrested in Santa Rosa.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Kingsley is prosecuting the case with the assistance of Bridget Kilkenny. The prosecution is the result of an investigation by the FBI and the IRS-CI.