monopoly_money.jpgAn accountant who had an office in San Francisco’s Sunset District was sentenced in federal court today to 20 years in prison for defrauding 292 middle-class investors of at least $34.5 million.

The prison term given to Roberto Heckscher, 55, of San Mateo, by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston was the maximum allowed by law for a mail fraud count to which he pleaded guilty in October.

Illston said, “I find this was the worst kind of fraud because the people who came to Mr. Heckscher relied on him and were totally deceived.

“This isn’t just investment fraud but a loss of retirement and life savings. That makes it particularly cruel,” the judge said.

Fifteen victims testified about their losses before a courtroom audience of more than 80 victims and spectators during a three-hour hearing at the Federal Building in San Francisco.

Former Los Angeles Rams football player Bob Fields, who lost $1.7 million, told Heckscher, “You lied and cheated every single one of us.”

Evelyn Fahnbulleh, who said she was introduced to Heckscher by a neighbor and lost her life savings of $187,000, said, “I’m destitute, penniless, without a cash reserve.”

Heckscher ran a tax preparation and bookkeeping business called Irving Bookkeeping and Taxes, which he took over from the Irving family in 1979.

Prosecutors said he bilked friends, relatives, neighbors, clients and others through a supposed private loan operation in which he claimed he was lending money to small businesses.

The annual interest he promised to the investors was typically between 7 and 13 percent, more than the investors could get through certificates of deposit, but not excessive enough to arouse suspicion, according to prosecutors.

Heckscher paid the investors the phony interest and in some cases also repaid the principal, but according to prosecutors financed those payments in a so-called Ponzi scheme by obtaining more money from new investors.

Prosecutors charged Heckscher spent an unknown but substantial amount of the investors’ money in a “secret, second, sordid life of gambling in the casinos of Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City.”

Defense attorney James Reilly claimed that Heckscher spent no more than 10 percent of the lost investments on gambling and said the gambling was partly a desperate attempt to recoup the money.

But Daniel Irving of Chico, who said he lost $1.7 million, said he accompanied Heckscher on lavish gambling trips to Las Vegas.

“He was gambling bigtime. He lived another lifestyle” there, Irving said.

Irving said his grandfather, Henry Irving Sr., founded the accounting business and his father, Henry Irving Jr., sold it to Heckscher in 1979.

“My dad was cremated but if he were in the ground, he would be rolling over in his grave,” Irving told Illston.

Prosecutors said in a court filing that Heckscher took in $53.9 million from 292 individuals or families between 1979 and 2009 and paid $19.4 million in supposed interest and principal.

The total loss is thus at least $34.5 million, but information from victims is still being compiled and the amount could be greater than that, according to prosecutors.

Illston scheduled a restitution hearing for July 29 to determine the amount owed to the victims.

The prosecution filing said that 45 to 50 of the victims were made financially insolvent by the fraud, while others may still be solvent but lost their retirement or nest eggs.

One victim in the latter group was Carolyn Fox of Concord, who said she lost $500,000 in an inheritance she had planned to use for retirement, philanthropy and her granddaughter’s college education.

Now, she said, she will have to forego retirement from her job as a school administrator and her 60-year-old husband had to take a night job as a janitor so that they can keep their house.

“To others it may not seem like a fortune, but it was to us,” Fox said. “Not one day has gone by that I am not consumed with anguish and regret” for having trusted Heckscher, she said.

Heckscher read a statement in which he told the victims, “I am truly and sincerely sorry for the pain I caused you.”

He asked Illston to sentence him to less than 20 years so that he could resume earning money to pay down the restitution, and asked the victims to forgive him for the sake of “your peace of mind and your health.”

Some victims said in their statements that they had forgiven Heckscher but others said they found it difficult to do so.

Robert McPherson, who said that he and his wife can sometimes afford only two meals per day in their home in rural Washington state, said that when Heckscher is in prison, “I hope you’ll learn that your greed has ruined lives.”

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