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Ex-Orion Bank president exits courtroom after sent...
Ex-Orion Bank president exits courtroom after sent...: Ex-Orion president Jerry WIlliams leaves courtroom after 6-year sentence for bank fraud. He was granted 60 days before having to turn himself in. (Brian Hirten/news-press.com).

Timeline

Nov. 13, 2009: The FDIC shuts down Orion Bank and deals most of its assets to Lafayette, La.-based IberiaBank
March 31, 2011: Former Orion Bank president Jerry Williams, a Tamarac businessman Ray Mileto and two bank vice presidents are indicted for bank fraud. All four later plead guilty.
Tuesday: Williams is sentenced to six years in federal prison. No fine is imposed but he must pay restitution to victims

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Jerry Williams’ sentencing for bank fraud Tuesday boiled down to a dispute over whether he was a vicious criminal who looted Naples-based Orion Bank — or just a victim of people and institutions more powerful and ruthless than him.

U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell sentenced Williams to six years in prison on his plea to three counts of bank fraud. Federal sentencing guidelines call for 11.25 to 14 years.

Williams, 52, the bank’s president, along with two other former Orion executives and a Tamarac businessman, were charged earlier this year in a 13-count indictment accusing them of scheming to illegally raise more funds while selling off bad loans to make the foundering bank appear financially healthier than it actually was.

Honeywell said in sentencing Williams that she was taking into account his “exemplary behavior” and lack of criminal convictions before the bank failed in 2009. Most of its assets and deposits were dealt to Lafayette, La.-based IberiaBank.

Six years in prison wasn’t close to what the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Waid wanted: 15 years, the maximum allowable under the law.

She said Williams acted selfishly in his own interests, not to help the other Orion employees and shareholders.

“This fraud rose to the highest level of bank management” and Williams was the biggest shareholder in the bank, she said. “If Orion failed, Mr. Williams failed.”

Also in favor of a harsher sentence were some of the former investors and employees who packed the courtroom in the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Myers.

“Not sufficient,” said Patrick Miller, who’d been with the bank since its inception and was senior vice president when it folded. He spoke on behalf of a group of employees and investors.

Miller, the only witness to testify for the prosecution, painted a picture of an arrogant Williams, who betrayed his employees to keep his lavish lifestyle going to the end.

Many “invested our life savings in Orion Bank,” he said, only to see Williams freeze cash withdrawals from their retirement fund so he could sell $1 million of soon-to-be-worthless Orion stock to the fund in April 2008 in order to pay his income taxes and buy a $79,653 Cobalt yacht.

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But Williams’ attorneys said the underlying cause of the bank’s problems was the abandonment by Washington of the nation’s smaller banks even as huge national “too-big-to-fail” banks were being bailed out.

“The FDIC turned its back on the community banks,” attorney William Sullivan said. “Jerry tried to save the bank.”

He also placed blame on Tamarac businessman Ray Mileto, a major participant in the scheme, who wasn’t the wealthy Italian patrician he claimed to be.

Williams panicked and went through with the phony transactions even when he discovered that Mileto was just a con man who preyed on banks, Sullivan said, calling it an “aberration” in an otherwise upright life.

Williams himself spoke on his own behalf only for about a minute at the hearing, saying quietly that “I take full responsibility for my actions and the mistakes I’ve made.”

Honeywell said before issuing her sentence that she took both points of view into consideration.

“The individual standing before the court has led an exemplary life” with no criminal convictions, she said, but on the other hand, “Mr. Williams’ conduct in this case was particularly egregious.”

Honeywell rejected the defense argument that Williams was really acting out of desperation and panic to keep the bank from going under.

Williams may have started out with good intentions but at the end, “I think it was more about greed, basically, than about saving the bank,” she said.

He has 60 days to turn himself in to a prison to be designated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Although no fine will be imposed, he’s required to pay restitution to his victims — the exact amount hasn’t been settled on and a separate hearing on that issue may be required, Honeywell said in her ruling.

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