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Rock Hill fraudster gets 30 months for Ponzi scheme

The self-described "game" Rock Hill financial planner Gene Sullivan played for almost two decades in stealing more than $2.5 million from dozens of mainly elderly friends and clients ended Wednesday in a federal courtroom.

Sullivan - who had used the stolen money to pay other investors and spend lavishly on college educations, weddings and his own home - finally lost the game and will spend 30 months in a federal prison.

But the score could have been worse for Sullivan, the 63-year-old former New York Life insurance agent and financial planner who told insurance investigators he was "going to play the game as long as I could, and let someone else clean it up." He also had expressed admiration of the salesmanship of the worst Ponzi scheme fraudster in American history, Bernie Madoff.

U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Perry acknowledged Sullivan's 30-plus years of community service and reduced the sentence prosecutors were seeking from five years to less than three.

Although Sullivan's guilty plea in January could have meant 20 years in prison, suggested federal sentencing guidelines for the type of crime Sullivan committed, coupled with his lack of a criminal record, gave Perry a suggested window of prison time of 51 to 63 months in prison.

"Yours is not as egregious as Madoff's, but it is of the same sort," Perry said of the scheme that defrauds investors to keep money rolling in to pay other investors while skimming off the top.

But Perry tempered that comparison to the worst Ponzi scheme fraud in U.S. history by saying Sullivan's lifetime of good deeds - coaching, refereeing, church and community work - showed "all the aspects of a great humanitarian."

Sullivan was indicted last September, yet was never jailed.

He did not go directly to prison Wednesday, either, but will soon have to report to federal authorities.

He had been staying with family at Hilton Head Island since he was charged. He declined to give an interview after the hearing.

Sullivan spoke briefly in court, apologizing to all involved and saying the word "mistake" at least five times.

He claimed of the scheme that required more and more cash to pay investors and his own expenses: "Once I got into it, I couldn't get out of it."

The scheme started at least 15 years ago when Sullivan, unable to keep up with his lifestyle that included building a house, took money from an investor in exchange for promised returns far above normal investments.

The scheme went unchecked and victimized widows, those who later became incapacitated, people in nursing homes, and others he knew through insurance and family connections.

The scheme fell apart when the family of one investor in 2008 asked for a receipt for tax purposes. Sullivan faked the receipt, and the investor complained to New York Life.

The insurance company and the FBI sent in teams of investigators, who uncovered the fraud that had continued unabated for years. Sullivan was fired.

He told investigators his plan was to keep the fraud going until he died, then let his life insurance policy pay off all the people he had scammed.

The investor who eventually tripped up Sullivan gave him $10,000 in 2005 - which Sullivan admitted to investigators he used to pay the leases on his children's cars and for the wedding of one child.

During the years of stealing - from people as varied as a retired Winthrop music school dean and a paraplegic woman in a wheelchair - Sullivan did pay off more than $1 million in principal and interest.

However, New York Life had no knowledge of the scheme and authorities estimate Sullivan garnered more than $1 million for his own use.

New York Life, which paid off the investors before Sullivan was charged with a crime, still is owed more than $2.4 million the company won from Sullivan in a civil lawsuit.

Judge Perry ordered that restitution paid back.

Not one of the more than two dozen investors included in the criminal probe was in court or asked for a more severe sentence.

Sullivan filed for bankruptcy and his Rock Hill home that is worth almost a half million dollars went into foreclosure even before he was arrested.

Federal regulators last year stripped Sullivan of his license to sell financial products.

Sullivan's lawyer, Jim Griffin, called Sullivan's criminal enterprise "aberrant" behavior compared to his lifetime of Little League coaching, refereeing and other good deeds.

But prosecutor Nathan Williams balked, saying Sullivan was no Robin Hood robbing the rich to pay the poor or doing good deeds. Williams portrayed Sullivan as a ruthless investment seeker who took advantage of people seeking financial gain to pay for nursing homes, mortgages and more.

Williams called any notion that Sullivan did anything but benefit personally from defrauding the most vulnerable people in society "absurd."

"For 15 years, maybe 20 years, more, this defendant lied, stole, and deceived," Williams said in court. "He stole from the elderly, the handicapped, from those who were dying."

Yet Perry shortened the potential sentence after he heard, by letter and testimony, from more than 70 people who said Sullivan's life of achievement should not be defined by the stealing of millions from the old and infirm.

Three people who had endured financial hardships, substance abuse and court troubles testified Sullivan gave them wise counsel in desperate times and was a sound person who looked out for others.

Chip Robertson, taken under Sullivan's financial and counseling wing after his parents, Earl and Terry Robertson, were murdered in 1997, testified that Sullivan "gave me a reason to live."

Jimmy Robertson, Chip's brother, has been on death row for 11 years since he was convicted of killing their parents with a hammer and baseball bat for their money. He sent a letter to the federal court asking for mercy for Sullivan.

Jimmy Robertson wrote he was "sentenced as one of the worst of the worst," but Sullivan "treated him as one of the best of the best."

In what might be a first for any courtroom, the prisoners of South Carolina's death row, where Jimmy Robertson remains jailed as he appeals his death sentence, signed a card sent to the court asking for mercy for Sullivan.

Sullivan paid more than $1,400 for a washer and dryer for the death row inmates after the one that cleaned their clothes had broken.

Williams, the prosecutor, responded to that alleged generosity on the part of Sullivan, saying that if prosecutors had known about that gift - paid for with cash swindled from people who trusted Sullivan - federal authorities would have seized the appliances.

Hearing the assertion that Sullivan had given a lifetime of service to his community, Williams gave a sharp response.

"Every time he went out to someone and stole," Williams said, "he was riding a wave of good will" he had paid for with stolen money.

"He didn't stop until he was caught."