TAMPA — When the Rev. Robert "Bob" Armstrong prayed with Sudan's president and asked him to allow United Nations peacekeeping forces into the country, former Reagan national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane says it helped.
The Rev. Daniel Ortega Reyes says Armstrong risked his life during a civil war in Nicaragua to go there and tell people about "the good news of Jesus." Friends said he's done the same thing in Cuba and Iraq.
Dozens of letters in a federal fraud case against Armstrong read this way, calling him a man of integrity, a Christian and an international advocate of religious freedom.
Federal prosecutors in Tampa described Armstrong, 60, of Bradenton as a minor participant in a scam that bilked clients buying blocks of airtime on private jets. For Armstrong's role in the scheme, Chief U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich sentenced him on Friday to 18 months in federal prison and ordered he pay more than $357,000 in restitution.
Armstrong, founder of the humanitarian organization Love-Link Ministries and editor for the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship Voice magazine, worked as vice president of Airfleet Resources Florida Inc., when investigators said he committed the crimes between March 2005 and June 2006. Armstrong pleaded guilty in July to one count of conspiracy to commit access device fraud and wire fraud.
As an employee of Airfleet, later known as MyJet 1 Inc., Armstrong illegally authorized charges on credit cards of his clients for bills his company owed, according to court records. Prosecutors said Airfleet lied to its clients about owning charter jets and failed to pay third-party companies that provided airplanes. Airfleet's failure to pay caused those companies to recoup their money by charging passengers' credit cards without their consent.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle Bedke said Airfleet president Charles J. Hellier was the mastermind behind the scheme. Armstrong gave investigators evidence against Hellier, who pleaded guilty to similar conspiracy charges and received 30 months in prison and was ordered to pay nearly $700,000 in restitution. A third co-conspirator, pilot Gregory Lee Love, also pleaded guilty and received five years' probation.
George Tragos, Armstrong's defense attorney, asked the judge for a probation sentence so that Armstrong could continue his work with charities.
Tragos pointed to the more than 70 character letters from people standing by Armstrong despite his conviction in a felony criminal case. Actor Richard Kiel, who played the villain "Jaws" in the James Bond films, said Armstrong was instrumental in helping him craft his autobiography.
Oklahoma Rep. Mary Fallin wrote to the judge, calling Armstrong "sincere and devoted" to his ministry work.
Some victims of the scam also sent letters of forgiveness and support. Two representatives from nonprofit and religious organizations that were defrauded flew in from out of state to ask for leniency.
Kovachevich has given Armstrong until June 17 to turn himself in, noting that she's allowing him to start his prison time after Father's Day.
In asking the judge for leniency in her dad's sentence, teenager Brittany Armstrong said, "I can only wish to marry a man just as awesome as my dad."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.