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Miami couple defrauded Cuban-American elderly

MIAMI – The Securities and Exchange Commission charged a prominent Miami couple Wednesday with operating a $135 million Ponzi scheme through a real-estate investment scam that defrauded hundreds of people, mostly elderly Cuban-Americans.

The SEC complaint filed in Miami federal court claims that Gaston Cantens, 71, and his wife Teresita Cantens, 73, promised unusually high returns of between 9 percent and 16 percent on investments in their Royal West Properties Inc.

But when Royal West’s fortunes went sour as mortgage holders defaulted, the Cantens allegedly began using money from new investors to pay off older ones in a classic Ponzi scheme, said Eric Bustillo, regional director of the SEC’s Miami office. They skimmed $20 million to pay themselves high salaries, for other business ventures and to pay children and grandchildren “consulting fees” although they performed no work, according to the complaint.

“The Cantens used their prominent standing in a close-knit Cuban-American community to ruthlessly exploit vulnerable elderly investors who trusted them with their life savings,” Bustillo said.

A written statement issued for the Cantens by a Miami public relations firm denied they defrauding anyone and blamed their business problems on the broader economic downturn. The couple also questioned the SEC’s $135 million figure, claiming that their company’s total liability is closer to $48 million.

“It is regrettable that the SEC would so grossly mischaracterize the business difficulties of Gaston and Teresita Cantens and Royal West Properties,” the statement said. “They too have suffered devastating financial losses.”

According to its Web site, Royal West’s main business was selling properties in the Southwest Florida towns of Cape Coral, Port Charlotte and Lehigh Acres – areas at the epicenter of Florida’s mortgage foreclosure crisis.

“We have always tried to assist our clients in making good financial decisions and investments,” Royal West’s Web site says.

But the SEC says the company has been in financial trouble since 2002 and was forced into bankruptcy in May 2009 by a group of investors, resulting in appointment in August of a trustee to liquidate the firm. The Cantens’ said they have transferred most assets to the bankruptcy trustee.

The SEC complaint charges the Cantens with violating securities registration and fraud provisions of federal securities law. It seeks a court order halting these business practices, forcing them to relinquish assets and ill-gotten gains and imposing unspecified civil penalties.

Like other Ponzi schemers, the SEC says the couple used their status in the Cuban-American community to make people think it was a privilege to invest with them. They highlighted clients such as Roman Catholic Jesuit priests and targeted investors at charitable and religious gatherings as well as through Spanish-language TV ads, the SEC claims.

“They portrayed themselves as a pious couple closely involved with educational and religious organizations, when in reality they were living lavishly off money from defrauded investors,” Bustillo said.

Royal West had offices in Florida, New York, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela and also sold investments through infomercials in Texas, New Jersey and California.

Several Royal West investors have also filed federal lawsuits against Cantens and his wife.

Cantens’ son and namesake, Gaston I. Cantens, is a former Florida state representative and current vice president at Florida Crystals Corp. He is not involved in the SEC complaint.