Sunday, November 18, 2018
Business

He scammed investors out of $1.2 million, FBI says, and ended up in a homeless shelter

For more than a year, Richard Buffington had an active presence on Facebook.

Photos showed him hugging Knuckles, his prize-winning bull dog, and fishing off the dock of the house he rented in St. Pete Beach. While his own time in the Army was short and unremarkable, he posted moving tributes to soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Have a GREAT MEMORIAL DAY weekend on behalf of those who can’t," he wrote in 2016.

In June 2017, the flood of Facebook posts suddenly stopped. It was just about then that the 48-year-old Buffington caught the attention of the FBI.

While touting his patriotism and love of country, Buffington had been bilking investors in a fraudulent "green energy" scheme, according to a criminal complaint. Over five years, the complaint says, Buffington collected $1.2 million from 28 investors in Florida and other states --- and spent it on "his personal enjoyment and to fund his lifestyle":

• $578,902 in cash withdrawals.

• $176,110 for rent

• $49,818 at Publix

• $15,375 at Derby Lane and the Hard Rock Casino

• $5,370 for jewelry

• $3,738 for liquor

• $2,915 for veterinarian bills

• $1,602 at bait and tackle stores

"As of the date of this affidavit, the investigation has yet to show that any of the investors’ funds have been used for any type of legitimate purpose," said the complaint, filed by an FBI agent in Tampa Aug. 29. "Therefore, it seems that the vast majority if not the entire sum of the $1.2 million can be considered a total loss."

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Buffington was arrested Aug. 30, charged with one felony count of wire fraud and released on a $25,000 signature bond. A magistrate appointed a public defender to represent him after Buffington — who gave his address as a Clearwater homeless shelter — said he could not afford an attorney.

Attempts to reach him for comment were fruitless. He did not respond to a note left at the shelter, and citing privacy reasons, employees would not say if he had ever been there. While perpetrating his alleged fraud, the FBI said, he had several email accounts and phone numbers --- none currently working.

***

Buffington grew up in Washingtonville, a town about two hours north of New York City. Records show that he joined the Army right out high school in 1987. He left two years later as a private first class with a sharpshooter marksmanship badge.

After studying at New York University, Buffington moved to the Orlando area in the late 1990s. There, he racked up several arrests, resulting in guilty or no contest pleas to DUI, criminal mischief and resisting arrest. He started a few companies that soon went defunct.

For a time, though, Buffington seemed to engage in "legitimate investment activity," the complaint says. Around 2008, he raised money for a company called Liberator Medical, which sells catheters and other supplies directly to consumers.

The company went public and several people whom Buffington had encouraged to invest reaped profits on their stock. So they were receptive when he approached them a few years later with a new investment opportunity — shares in Green Street Equities, an Orlando company of which he was chairman and president.

According to its slick-looking web site and a private placement memorandum, Green Street would use the money it raised to buy ownership stakes in companies involved in renewable energy and other green-oriented sectors. As they later told the FBI, investors had similar experiences with Buffington starting in 2013. (The complaint identifies them only by initials.)

R.A., who had made a " large sum of money" off his Liberator stock, said Buffington told him the new venture would be very profitable and soon would go public on the New York Stock Exchange. R.A. invested $41,950.

In June 2015, A.A. bought 2,000 shares in Green Street for $10,000. Buffington told him the company would go public within two weeks.

Between 2013 and mid-2016, M.M. put in $99,500 after Buffington said Green Street would invest in companies that had "great patents." He, too, was led to believe that Green Street would go public and trade at $19 per share.

They and other investors received stock certificates, created by P.R in Sanford, Florida.

According to the complaint, P.R. had a template for the stock certificates on his computer. Buffington would call and tell him the person’s name and the amount of shares to enter on the template. P.R. would overnight the certificates to Buffington, who would then send the worthless certificates on to the investors.

"We can find no evidence of any meaningful investment or acquisition in a "green company" by (Green Street) or Buffington but we can see from bank records that Buffington was living out of the money he was raising," the complaint said.

In 2015, Buffington rented a waterfront house on Boca Ciego Bay for nearly $3,000 a month. He took to Facebook in a big way, posting photos of a heron snatching fish from his bait bucket; of sunsets over the gulf ("beautiful"); of the pool deck pounded by rain ("infantry weather!").

Other posts included a mix of aphorisms and links to web sites selling T-shirts sporting the logos of various Army units.

Buffington, with his sun-bleached shock of hair and muscular, tattooed arms, was a striking individual if not always an easy one to figure out.

"He wanted to give me shares; I never could understand what he was talking about," said Lawrence Gerahian, who then owned the house. "He used to drop off steaks on occasion."

Ron Thompson, who managed the property, said Buffington had a salesman’s extroverted personality. "He told me he was in the military and all these things and I said, ‘Okay, that’s great,’" recalled Thompson, who wound up as one of Buffington’s hundreds of Facebook friends.

Investors, meanwhile, were growing wary of Buffington’s assurances that Green Street was about to go public. In early 2016, a posting on the web site Ripoff Report urged potential investors to "research what a scammer he is."

"The Green Street web site is carefully crafted to separate you from your money," the anonymous poster wrote. "Mr. Buffington will tell you anything you want to hear so he can continue his lifestyle. If you still want to invest in his company, go give a stranger $100, then have the stranger kick you in the private area as hard as he can. You will then know what it feels like to invest with him.’’

On May 26, 2016, an investor identified as L.M. sent Buffington an email complaining that Green Street had failed to go public two days earlier as he had said it would.

"I chose not to believe some of the unflattering reports about you on the Internet," L.M. added.

Buffington --- claiming the Ripoff item "was posted by MY EX-WIFE!" - responded that the company issuing the stock certificates had made an error. He had gone to New York to straighten it out and "everything is fine.’’

In fact, "there is no evidence of travel to New York or anywhere else by Buffington,’’ the complaint says. "During this time period, Buffington visited multiple Bank of America ATMs and Publix supermarkets in or around the St. Petersburg, Fla. area.’’

Buffington’s bank accounts were negative or near zero until two investors wired a total of $6,000. At one point, he fell so far behind on his rent that he got a three-day notice. He paid up but moved out in the fall of 2016.

In February 2017, another blistering message appeared on Ripoff Report. It said that Buffington’s phone had been disconnected, Green Street’s web site had been shut down and the company had been dissolved. And it had never gone public.

"If you invested in Mr. Buffington’s company your money is gone and he has slithered under a rock and is hiding,’’ the message said. "The big military man has no honor, he is a worthless scumbag.’’

The posting gave a list of government agencies to contact. Among them: the FBI.

Agents began an undercover operation, with one posing as a potential investor. Buffington called the agent up to several times a day, falsely claiming Green Street was about to go public and urging him to invest before "a cooling off" period took effect last December. Buffington suggested the agent invest $100,000; he wired $3,000.

Bank records showed that Green Street’s account had a negative balance at the time. Instead of investing in other companies, as Buffington told the agent, the $3,000 went for Uber rides, restaurant purchases and at least two stays at a local hotel.

"With respect to the money we were able to follow," the FBI agent wrote in the complaint, "Buffington simply appears to be living off the ‘investments.’"

If convicted, he could live up to 20 years in federal prison.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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