A former Indiana businessman who served for years as National Lampoon’s chief executive was arrested Wednesday on charges he ran an elaborate Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of more than $200 million to help fund a lavish lifestyle, including a $250,000 revamp of his luxury home’s garage.
A federal grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday in Indianapolis charges Timothy Durham, business partner James F. Cochran and their accountant, Rick D. Snow, with 12 counts, including conspiracy to commit wire and securities fraud, wire fraud and securities fraud.
The indictment, along with a separate Securities and Exchange Commission civil filing, accuses all three of defrauding about 5,000 investors in Akron, Ohio-based Fair Finance Co. of more than $200 million.
Tim Morrison, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Indianapolis, said the charges Durham faces involve Fair Finance and in no way pertain to National Lampoon. Morrison said many of the victims, including elderly investors, suffered severe financial harm in the alleged scheme.
“I can’t stand here and purport to feel what they feel. There are people who are severely hurt because of this,” Morrison said.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said Durham was arrested Wednesday morning at his home in West Hollywood, Calif.
He appeared in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon for a hearing at which a federal magistrate ordered him held overnight at a federal detention center, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.
At the hearing, Durham, 48, waived his right to fight federal prosecutors’ request that he be moved to Indianapolis to face the charges, Mrozek said. He’s scheduled to appear before the magistrate again Thursday afternoon for a detention hearing at which he’ll learn if he will be released on bond.
Cochran, 55, and Snow, 47, were arraigned Wednesday in federal court in Indianapolis and released, although they are required to wear electronic-monitoring equipment, said U.S. Attorney Winfield Ong.
James Voyles, an attorney for Cochran, declined comment Wednesday. Attorneys for Durham and Snow did not immediately return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Durham was president and chief executive officer of National Lampoon until Wednesday, said Cora Victoriano, a spokeswoman for the Los-Angeles based company that owns rights to the “Vacation” and “Animal House” movies. She declined additional comment.
SEC filings show Durham was named the company’s president and CEO in December 2008.
The indictment alleges that the scheme unfolded between February 2005 and November 2009, when the FBI raided the offices of Fair Finance and his Indianapolis-based company, Obsidian Enterprises.
The indictment alleges that when Durham and Cochran bought Fair Finance in 2002, the company had debts of about $37 million and income-producing assets of about $48 million. But by November 2009, it states that Fair’s debts had swollen to more than $200 million and its sole assets were loans extended to Durham, Cochran, their associates and businesses they owned or controlled.
Court documents allege that Durham, Cochran and Snow conducted an elaborate Ponzi scheme in which they used money from new investors to pay off earlier investors — then used investor proceeds to keep afloat their own unprofitable businesses, such as a car magazine, a race car team and a luxury bus-leasing business.
The documents also allege the men gave money to family and friends and used investor funds to maintain lifestyles which, in Durham’s case, included a 30,000-square-foot Indiana estate, a yacht, private jets and a collection of classic and exotic cars. Among other expenses, the indictment alleges Durham used $250,000 of investors’ money to upgrade his home’s garage, wired himself another $150,000 for use at a casino and that Cochran used $50,000 to pay country club fees.
The SEC lawsuit contends that by 2009, 90 percent of Fair Finance’s investments were tied up in the alleged scheme. Federal officials said many of the victims were elderly Ohio residents.
“To add insult to injury, they squandered the stolen funds on such extravagances as multiple homes, a private jet, a yacht and more than 40 classic and exotic cars,” Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a statement.
The investigation into Durham’s dealings has sparked calls for top Indiana Republicans, including Gov. Mitch Daniels, to return a total of more than $800,000 Durham donated to the party and candidates. Daniels, who received about $195,000 between 2003 and 2009, has said the money was spent and that there was nothing to return.
Morrison said it took prosecutors some 16 months to bring the indictment because investigators had to sift through thousands of documents, including bank accounts, internal company records and the companies’ books.
Michael Welch, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Indianapolis office, said the arrests of the three men follows the largest corporate fraud case the agency has ever handled in Indiana.
A bankruptcy trustee for Fair Finance told creditors in August that Durham had borrowed $54 million from the company and used the money for gambling, cars, artwork and political donations. The company has since filed for bankruptcy.