TAMPA — Once-prominent Tampa road builder Michael Cone received a 15-year federal prison sentence Friday after pleading guilty to hiding assets during his company's bankruptcy.
It was the longest prison term U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew could legally give Cone, 51. She said the only struggle she had in settling on his sentence was deciding whether he should serve it at the same time or after a five-year state prison sentence he's currently serving.
She ordered the federal sentence to start afterward, potentially keeping Cone behind bars for 20 years.
"It's an outrageous sentence for this crime," defense attorney Ronald Kurpiers said in court. People accused of worse get less prison time, he said.
But Bucklew said the aggravating factors of Cone's criminal history and the amount of money involved in the fraud increased the severity of his punishment.
Cone, former president of Cone Constructors, must also pay more than $1.77-million in restitution and forfeit his family's home.
"This has been quite a journey," Cone said as he asked the judge for a chance to redeem himself. "I couldn't imagine ever sitting in a court listening to basically what we discussed today."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Porcelli called Cone's case "one of the most absurd bankruptcy cases that's been in this district in a long time."
"This is a fall from grace unlike any other case I've been involved with," Porcelli said.
Cone pleaded guilty to two counts of bankruptcy fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud. Co-defendants included his wife, Joanne Cone, and former employee Patricia Rankin Grable.
Both women have pleaded guilty to having roles in the fraud. Grable is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday before Bucklew. The judge will sentence Joanne Cone some time in June.
As Cone Constructors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 2000, prosecutors said, Michael Cone orchestrated ways of hiding the company's assets. Cone resurrected a defunct company that he claimed his wife operated and sold Cone Constructors equipment to her, then leased it back for his own use.
Grable testified during the sentencing that Cone gave her a binder that contained fake and back-dated documents to make it seem as if Joanne Cone's business had been active all along and appear as if Grable was an officer. Grable said she lied about the documents because of greed.
Cone had promised her that once they got their legal troubles behind them, they could turn Joanne Cone's development business into a legitimate enterprise and make money, Grable said.
Besides the conviction in a state case earlier this year, Cone also pleaded no contest in 1999 to other state criminal charges for failing to pay subcontractors. The DOT banned his company from bidding on state projects for four years after that, allowing him to complete existing projects.
Cone Constructors served as general contractor for parts of the Suncoast Parkway in Hillsborough and Pasco counties from July 1999 to May 2000.
Porcelli accused Cone of committing perjury Thursday during testimony in the sentencing. He did not elaborate.
More than once, the judge had to direct Cone to answer questions forthrightly, without blaming his actions on others, saying they assured him what he was doing was acceptable.
Defendants who plead guilty in federal court usually receive credit for accepting responsibility, which may result in less jail time.
Bucklew denied him credit, though, because she said she didn't believe Cone had accepted the idea that he committed a crime.
Attorney Eddie Suarez, who lives across the street from Cone, spoke on his behalf.
"Since he's been taken into custody, there's a certain something that's missing in the neighborhood," Suarez said.
He called Cone a "kind and considerate man" who is a good father to two sons.
"I'm sorry for your family and I'm sorry for your children. They are going to be without you for a long period of time," Bucklew told Cone. "You may be a good father in a lot of ways, but you have created a situation where your children are going to suffer."
Kevin Graham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.