Former Finance Director at two non-profits sentenced to 41 months in prison for embezzling over $3 million
Seattle – A 42-year-old former Bellevue, Washington, man was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 12 years in prison for securities fraud, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. Justin Costello victimized marijuana business owners, private investors, and investors who purchased stock in the public market. Costello used fraud proceeds for an expensive lifestyle, including an elaborate wedding with a James Bond theme. At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez said the frauds “caused a severe impact financially, and a severe emotional impact…. People felt betrayed and violated by (Costello’s) actions.
"Mr. Costello had ‘big dreams’ -- building a lifestyle that emulated his hero, 007 James Bond — but he did so by victimizing dozens of people and businesses who entrusted their personal savings to him,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. “When he was indicted, he fled with fake ID, cash, gold, and jewelry to finance a life on the run. But his story is not fiction and the $35 million damage to his victims is all too real. This prison sentence is fully appropriate.”
“After finally having to answer for his crimes, Mr. Costello went on the run” said Richard A. Collodi, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Seattle field office. “His flight to avoid prison demonstrates that is exactly where he belongs. I applaud the work of our investigators and prosecutors who finally put an end to his elaborate fraud, and to our partners who were able to apprehend him before he could leave the country.”
As part of his securities fraud scheme, Costello purchased two companies that were trading for pennies on the over-the-counter market and renamed them GRN Holding Corporation and Hempstract Inc. Costello recruited investors in these companies, allegedly making numerous false statements. Costello told potential private investors that he had an MBA from Harvard, that his personal wealth was significantly larger than it was, and that GRN Funds LLC, a private equity and hedge fund he owned, had over $1 billion in assets under management. None of that was true.
With these falsehoods, Costello convinced various investors across the country to invest in his companies.
Today., some of those recruited investors told the court how Costello preyed on their friendship to get them to invest. One told the court “Nothing with Costello was real… We were groomed by this predator… The stage was set for this big con.”
Another told the court “He is a liar, a financial psychopath, and a human wrecking ball.”
A third told the court that her husband was a changed man after losing all of their money investing with Costello. She described how her husband became depressed and took his own life.
Costello did not just defraud friends, he also committed fraud on those investing on public markets. He had press releases and securities filings made with multiple false representations. Between July 1, 2019, and May 18, 2021, over 7,500 investors purchased and sold GRN Holding Corp. securities while Costello was making, and causing to be made, material misrepresentations concerning GRN Holding Corp. Collectively, these investors lost approximately $25 million. Similarly, with Hempstract Inc., he made false statements and defrauded investors. Between November 2018 and June 2021, 29 private investors lost about $6 million.
Between October 2019, and January 2021, Costello hired an unindicted coconspirator to use Twitter in a pump and dump stock scheme. Costello would acquire the penny stock of a company and then instruct his prolific Twitter user to tweet falsehoods about the company that would drive up the stock price. The coconspirator would tweet about the stock as often as 90 times a day. In one instance Costello didn’t just use Twitter, he also instructed some of his “investors” to purchase stock in the company, driving the share price from a nickel to $2 per share. After driving the share price up, Costello sold the shares for a profit of more than $355,000. The prolific Twitter user was given a share of Costello’s profits from the pump and dump scheme. In all Costello made $625,092 in the pump and dump scheme.
Along with the securities fraud, in 2017 Costello owned and operated a company called Pacific Banking Corp that provided banking services to marijuana businesses in Washington, Colorado, California, Illinois, and Alaska. Costello sent false account statements to the marijuana businesses, so that they were lulled into thinking their money was secure. However, between 2019 and 2021, Costello diverted money from three marijuana business to benefit himself and his other companies. The three marijuana businesses lost about $3.7 million.
Costello was apprehended October 6, 2022, by law enforcement in Southern California. He had fake identification documents, cash, and valuables indicating he hoped to flee to Mexico to avoid prosecution.
In addition to the financial harm, prosecutors noted that Costello’s investors suffered a betrayal that stays with them to this day. “Costello’s deceit – about his background, his education, and his purported success – was designed to convince unwitting investors to trust him. And trust him they did. But when lies and fraud are exposed, victims are left with significant emotional and psychological damage. They blame themselves for being gullible and overly trusting. The resulting stress, anxiety, and sense of betrayal causes great emotional and psychological harm, and damages the victims’ relationships with friends, family, and others,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.
Judge Martinez recognized that harm in imposing the sentence saying, “in many financial crimes the victims are not known to the fraudster… Financial crimes where the defendant befriends the individual and uses them to entice others to the scheme has a completely different emotional impact. It leaves victims feeling helpless and hopeless.”
In his Plea Agreement, Costello agreed to pay no less than $35 million in restitution, but the Court will enter the final restitution amount in August 2023. Costello is forfeiting assets that were seized at the time of his arrest including $60,000 in cash, gold bars, Mexican pesos, two designer watches, and gem encrusted jewelry.
The case was investigated by the FBI.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Justin Arnold and Michael Dion.
Press contact for the U.S. Attorney’s Office is Communications Director Emily Langlie at (206) 553-4110 or Emily.Langlie@usdoj.gov.