WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Stephen Stepp was looking for a safe place to invest his retirement nest egg, he turned to a Boca Raton man who gained respectability dishing out financial advice on weekly TV and radio shows and headlining investment seminars.
On Monday, Stepp said he was embarrassed to admit that he hadn't recognized Anthony Cutaia for what he was: a con man.
"He was an unbelievable scammer," Stepp told U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley. "He was a master at it."
Stepp, who lost most of the $150,000 he invested with Cutaia, was far from alone. Greg Stine, a retired special agent for what is now the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said he and his wife lost about $180,000 and the home where they raised their children to Cutaia's investment scheme.
"He had credibility," Stine said, referring to Cutaia's broadcasts and his membership on the board of the powerful Gold Coast Builders Association. "He was a very visible guy."
Testimony from the two law enforcement agents and other victims helped persuade Hurley to mete out harsh punishment to the 65-year-old who sought leniency, claiming he has a gambling addiction and is also bipolar.
Hurley said he believed Cutaia suffers from both maladies. But, he said, Cutaia knew what he was doing when he stole about $1.5 million from people who turned to him for financial security.
"This is a terrible, terrible offense that has caused real financial harm to people who can't afford it," Hurley said.
Hurley sentenced Cutaia to 51 months in prison, the maximum allowed under federal sentencing guidelines. Out on bond since his arrest in June, Hurley ordered Cutaia to be taken into custody immediately.
Once attorneys come up with a final tally of his financial misdeeds for the scam that ran from 2002-2007, Hurley said he would order Cutaia to pay restitution. However, pointing out that Cutaia gambled and squandered away his own life savings, he said it is doubtful his victims will get anything.
While pleased with the sentence, Stepp said Cutaia got off easy. Prosecuted for stealing money from people who thought he was investing it in commercial property that he would sell at a profit, Cutaia wasn't charged in connection with any of his other investment schemes, federal prosecutors said.
Stepp, who invested the pension he earned during his 25-year career as a North Miami Beach police officer, scoffed at Cutaia's insistence that his mental illness drove his behavior. "When I heard that I thought, here we go again," he said.