U.S. retirement centres CEO sentenced after defrauding investors of $130M

The former head of an Oregon-based chain of retirement centres was sentenced by a federal judge on Tuesday to 15 years in prison for defrauding investors of about $130 million.

Prosecutors say Jon Harder operated what amounted to a Ponzi scheme, raising money from unsuspecting investors and banks during the collapse of his Sunwest Management chain of more than 300 assisted-living centres.

Harder pleaded guilty in January to mail fraud and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from unlawful activity.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon on Tuesday gave prosecutors the sentence they sought: 15 years, even though Harder’s attorneys had asked for five years.

Salem-based Sunwest was losing cash in early 2006, but Harder is said to have led investors, including many retirees, to believe the retirement chain was thriving. In fact, prosecutors say he went on a buying spree to hide company losses, acquiring more than 100 assisted-living centres at a rate of one a week.

Prosecutors add Harder defrauded more than 1,000 investors between 2006 and 2008, and they say he did so while living a lavish lifestyle.

In a letter to Judge Simon, Harder apologized for the “carnage and problems” he caused. He wrote, “I know I was reckless by growing so quickly, and in using other people’s money to do so, but I never intended to harm anyone. I wanted everyone connected with Sunwest to succeed.”

The company went through a reorganization after Harder stepped aside in 2009: a private equity company bought most of the holdings, and investors eventually got some money back.

In a separate case, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit in 2009 that accused Harder of committing securities fraud. The SEC sought up to $190 million in civil penalties, but a judge struck down the attempt.