Thursday, January 29, 2004

Erpenbeck must pay price for his crime


Builder Bill Erpenbeck's plea for leniency is unlikely to stir merciful feelings in his many victims and shouldn't sway U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott.

Although he pleaded guilty to fraud totaling at least $33 million and cost hundreds of homebuyers years of financial anguish, Erpenbeck is asking for probation, house arrest or sentencing to a federal halfway house. He could face up to 30 years in prison and millions in restitution. He should do time for his white-collar crime.

In his favor, his offense was nonviolent. His home building company, once fourth largest in the region, has folded, and last year his 9,000-square-foot house in Crestview Hills was sold at bankruptcy auction. Since 2002, he has been living in Fort Myers, Fla. But he didn't just fail at business. He committed fraud, at closings, by diverting home buyers' construction loan payoffs to banks into his own company accounts. Those rip-offs were big checks - as much as $80,000 or more at a crack - and left unsuspecting buyers with no clear title to their property and mechanics liens from unpaid contractors.

Testimonials supplied by Erpenbeck's lawyer Glenn Whitaker tell of a generous man, which is no doubt true, but unfortunately, as his company cash-flow problems worsened in later years, he was generous with other people's money.

He agreed to cooperate with federal authorities, but it is questioned just how cooperative their star witness has been. Erpenbeck is objecting to the federal pre-sentence investigation report, and Whitaker has subpoenaed two former Peoples Bank officers to testify at the Feb. 6 pre-sentencing hearing. John Finnan and Marc Menne were both fired from the bank in 2002, after it was learned they had a private partnership with Erpenbeck. They are still under FBI investigation for bank fraud.

On Feb. 26, victims will have their say on Erpenbeck. Dlott will rule March 29. Her decision will be closely watched, since her husband, lawyer Stan Chesley, won a $16.8 million class-action settlement for 210 home buyers stiffed by the fraud.

Erpenbeck's request for mercy calls it "aberrant behavior." That it was - and more. Some buyers are stuck in still unfinished developments. His crimes rocked this region. Bring him back from Florida to do his time.

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