TAMPA — The two Orlando men who operated a language-instruction company to teach special forces did everything the military asked of them. And by all accounts, they did it well.
U.S. Special Operations Command, with headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, hired Eduardo Blanchet and Daniel Guillan's company to provide instruction that might prove the difference for troops in some of the world's most dangerous places.
But a federal judge on Thursday sentenced them to three years in prison followed by three years of supervised release in a case involving lies, deception and fraud — but no outright theft.
"This story has had a sad ending," U.S. District Court Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington said. "It could and should have had a happy ending."
Guillan and Blanchet will remain free until prison officials give them a report date.
The defendants, U.S. citizens who had immigrated from Argentina years previously, had successfully operated B.I.B. Consulting. In 2002, the company won a $50 million SOCom contract for language instruction that had been set aside for a small business.
But success brought a complication. When the contract expired in 2007, B.I.B. no longer qualified as a small business and could not bid for a new, $100 million SOCom contract.
So, prosecutors said, Blanchet and Guillan formed MiLanguages, hid their involvement and won the new contract.
In February, a jury convicted them of conspiracy and wire fraud charges.
Even prosecutors acknowledged MiLanguages provided excellent services to the military.
In fact, SOCom continued using MiLanguages even after investigators opened a fraud investigation and froze the company's bank accounts.
But the judge said they still deserved prison. "There were some shenanigans that took place to get around the rules," Covington said. "There's no way around that."
The judge said she nonetheless recognized this was not an ordinary fraud case. She said sentencing guidelines calling for a prison term of nine to 11 years seemed too harsh.
Prosecutor Josephine Thomas, noting the men earned more than $11 million in profit, recommended a five-year sentence.
But Covington said that still seemed too steep, so she departed from the guidelines.
"They performed in an exemplary fashion," the judge said of the company's work. "I think you have to give them that."
An indictment said Guillan and Blanchet formed MiLanguages, setting up a straw man as its president, "although Blanchet and Guillan remained the de facto owners."
The sham president of the company was paid $63,000 by Guillan and Blanchet.
Prosecutors said the men lied and submitted false information to the Small Business Administration to win designation as a small business.
In 2007, the men instructed an attorney to "send a letter to the SBA size program manager relaying that MiLanguages and B.I.B. had no common officers, shareholders or employees ... and that a 'clear line of fracture' existed between B.I.B. and MiLanguages," an indictment said.
At trial, the defendant's attorneys argued the company got bad legal advice. Blanchet said the same shortly before the judge imposed sentence.
"I feel very sorry for all the inconvenience we brought to the government," he said. "I have been a person of honor all my life. I got bad legal advice."
Covington shot back, "The jury rejected that and I reject it, too."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]y.com or (813) 226-3432.