Woodbridge Group ordered to pay $1 billion in penalties for Ponzi scheme targeting retail investors

A federal court in Florida ordered a real estate investing firm and its former owner to pay $1 billion for operating a Ponzi scheme that targeted thousands of retail investors, many of them seniors.

The court ordered Woodbridge Group of Companies to pay $892 million in disgorgement and its former owner and CEO Robert H. Shapiro to pay a $100 million civil penalty and give back more than $20 million in ill-gotten gains and interest.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which announced the order on Monday, filed an emergency action in December 2017 charging the company with operating the $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme that defrauded 8,400 retail investors across the country. The SEC accused Shapiro and Woodbridge of swindling seniors in “a business model built on lies.”

It was supposed to pay investors a 10 percent annual return by investing in developers who flipped luxury real estate. But the SEC said the money went instead to a constellation of related companies and was used to pay off other investors. Shapiro was accused of diverting $21 million for his own benefit, including charter planes, country club fees, luxury vehicles and jewelry.

A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that pays current investors with money brought in from new investors, often without ever investing the money in the way it was advertised it would be invested. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida approved the judgments against Woodbridge and its 281 affiliates. The defendants neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s accusations.

Woodbridge collapsed in December 2017 when it stopped paying investors and filed for bankruptcy.

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.