TAMPA — Peter J. Porcelli, a Pinellas businessman who made millions in telemarketing and owned the world-champion Tampa Bay Smokers fast-pitch softball team, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison Thursday for defrauding dozens of local homeowners with a foreclosure relief scam.
Using a phony nonprofit, Porcelli promised residents facing foreclosure he would save their homes. But victims instead saw illegal loan fees, annual interest rates ballooning as high as 260 percent and a provision to forfeit their homes if payments were missed.
Prosecutor Thomas N. Palermo called Porcelli's lending operation "a kind of slow-motion theft."
Porcelli's attorney, Arthur N. Eggers, argued that Porcelli deserved leniency because he had earned glowing reports for assisting prosecutors in another scam, an international telemarketing operation that peddled worthless MasterCards to hundreds of thousands of credit-poor consumers for a processing fee of $159.95 apiece.
Porcelli pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 13 years in that case but got nearly five years knocked off for testifying against his partner, Utah businessman Kyle Kimoto.
Eggers said Thursday that any sentence in the foreclosure relief case should be served at the same time as the prior sentence because of Porcelli's cooperation.
Pale in a jail uniform and leg shackles, Porcelli apologized to his victims and asked for the "opportunity to become a productive member of society and a family member once again."
U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew said no. "These two frauds are not the same," she said. And the foreclosure relief scheme involved "a different set of victims."
Bucklew gave Porcelli, a 58-year-old father of two, 10 years on the mail fraud charge, to be served after the eight-year sentence for telemarketing fraud.
She also ordered that a forfeiture judgment of $1.8 million be placed against Porcelli's assets and that restitution of a similar amount be paid to the victims of the foreclosure relief fraud.
One victim who spoke to the court prior to sentencing spoke of his and his wife's losses.
"I'm sorry for you, Peter, I'm sorry for your family," said Calvin Lewendowski, a Northport carpenter who lost his home to Porcelli. "But our dreams were shattered because of you."
Porcelli's lending business was illegal from the moment it was set up in a back office on Automobile Boulevard in Clearwater in 2005.
Porcelli targeted homeowners facing foreclosure with fliers from his Safe Harbour Foundation, which billed itself as a nonprofit with a "guaranteed solution to stay in your home."
But Safe Harbour had no license or registration as a nonprofit. It was merely a vehicle to refer clients to Silverstone Lending, a Porcelli mortgage company.
Silverstone was illegal, too, because after the telemarketing case, a federal judge signed an injunction banning Porcelli from offering credit services and loans of any kind for life.
Porcelli took a 16-hour course and obtained a mortgage broker's license despite the federal injunction, prompting Bucklew to suggest that the state Office of Finance of Regulation had dropped the ball.
"I can't imagine how the state of Florida licensed this man," Bucklew said.
Porcelli said he received a legal opinion from Clearwater attorney Thomas Little that the lending operation would violate no court order.
Yet Little had represented Porcelli in the telemarketing fraud suit and knew that his client had been banned from offering any kind of loan. Little not only became registered agent for Porcelli's lending company but also was paid for title work done on loans Porcelli made.
When Bucklew heard some of that Thursday, she queried, "Is (Little) still licensed to practice law?"
The Federal Trade Commission sought contempt charges against Little based on his role in facilitating the Silverstone scam, but Little settled by giving up $16,105 in earnings he received from the fraudulent loan operation.
He did not return calls for comment Thursday.
Kathie Visceglie, a Pasco County woman who organized a virtual posse of homeowners to expose Porcelli's schemes, begged Bucklew in a hearing last month to give him the maximum, saying the financial crisis caused by Porcelli destroyed her marriage.
"Mr. Porcelli said he'd save us, but he cursed us out, called us every name you can imagine, tried to steal our house," Visceglie told Bucklew.
She wanted 20 years for Porcelli but was "happy to see him get 10."
Another defrauded homeowner was unable to share in Visceglie's satisfaction.
Philip K. Davis's health deteriorated after an auto accident and he died 14 weeks after taking out a Silverstone loan. Porcelli took the deed to the home, raised the rent and later evicted Davis' daughter, who believes Porcelli simply took advantage of a dying man.
Said Visceglie: "Philip Davis never got to see justice done."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 of [email protected]