The former chief financial officer of EarthWater Limited, based in Dallas, pleaded guilty June 7 to 22 charges for a multimillion-dollar, high-yield investment fraud scheme that targeted elderly victims.
In addition, another individual who sold EarthWater securities pleaded guilty to one charge related to the investment fraud scheme.
According to court documents, Harley E. “Buddy” Barnes III, 63, of Plano, Texas, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and money laundering charges. Barnes, who was EarthWater’s CFO, conspired to and obtained investor funds through a scheme to defraud. Relatedly, Joe Edward Duchinsky, 67, of Alhambra, California, who sold EarthWater securities, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
According to court documents, beginning in or about 2013 and continuing through or about May 2019, Barnes, as CFO of EarthWater, and Duchinsky, as a salesperson of EarthWater stock, participated in a fraudulent scheme to convince individuals in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada to invest in EarthWater under the false pretense that their investment would increase substantially in value in the immediate future. In connection with the scheme, Barnes, Duchinsky, and their co-conspirators made materially false and fraudulent misrepresentations to investors that the majority of investor funds would be used to support EarthWater’s operations. In fact, the funds were used to pay undisclosed, excessive commissions to Duchinsky and others for selling EarthWater stock on Barnes’s behalf. Barnes, Duchinsky, and their co-conspirators knew that the proceeds of EarthWater stock sales were not invested in EarthWater as described to victim investors, but rather paid out to Barnes, Duchinsky, and their co-conspirators and others for their personal benefit. Barnes also engaged in money laundering involving investor funds obtained as part of the scheme.
In addition, according to court documents, Beth Ellen DeGroot, 62, of Plano, Texas, EarthWater’s former president, pleaded guilty in a separate action on May 17 to conspiring with Barnes. After the company’s bank accounts were frozen, DeGroot conspired with Barnes to fraudulently direct EarthWater’s payroll processor to continue to pay Barnes and DeGroot’s paychecks even though the company’s operations had ceased, and it had insufficient funds to cover payroll. DeGroot also submitted a fraudulent mortgage loan application using pay stubs fraudulently obtained from the payroll processor. When DeGroot learned about the government’s ongoing investigation, she attempted to obstruct the investigation by falsifying a document she produced to a federal grand jury and by making a false statement to a federal agent.
Barnes pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, 10 counts of mail fraud, 10 counts of wire fraud, and one count of money laundering. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 28. Duchinsky pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced at a later time. DeGroot pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 14. Barnes faces up to 10 years in prison for the money laundering count and up to 20 years in prison for each of the other counts. Duchinsky and DeGroot each face up to 20 years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Five other defendants have also pleaded guilty in the Northern District of Texas for their roles in the EarthWater high-yield investment fraud scheme, including EarthWater’s CEO, Cengiz Jan Comu, 61, of Dallas, Texas; EarthWater’s Chief Operating Officer, John Mervyn Price, 66, of Dallas, Texas; Donald Andrew Rothman, 74, of Coral Springs, Florida; Richard Laurence Kadish, 61, of Miami, Florida; and Richard Lawrence Green, 71, of Deerfield Beach, Florida. These five defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 7.
Three other defendants are awaiting trial on charges set forth in a superseding indictment filed on Nov. 6, 2019, in the Northern District of Texas. The trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 3. An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney Chad E. Meacham for the Northern District of Texas; and Inspector in Charge Eric Shen of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s (USPIS) Criminal Investigations Group made the announcement.
USPIS is investigating the case.
Trial Attorneys Christopher Fenton and Theodore Kneller of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary F. Walters of the Northern District of Texas are prosecuting the case.