Ponzi-scheme sus­pect spent thou­sands on priests for pro­tec­tion

Times Colonist - - Business - MICHAEL KUN­ZEL­MAN

GREEN­BELT, Mary­land — An in­vest­ment ad­viser charged with or­ches­trat­ing a mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar Ponzi scheme spent nearly three-quar­ters of a mil­lion dol­lars on prayers by Hindu priests in In­dia to ward off a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion and save her fail­ing busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony at her trial this week.

Us­ing in­vestors’ money, Dawn Ben­nett paid a man in Washington state $720,000 US be­tween 2015 and 2017 to ar­range for the priests to per­form religious cer­e­monies meant to ease her trou­bles, said a Jus­tice De­part­ment pros­e­cu­tor and the man Ben­nett paid. For one of these “yagya” rit­u­als, Ben­nett spent $7,250 for five priests to pray for her for 29 con­sec­u­tive days.

“I am in a very very tough fight go­ing against my en­e­mies and I need all the help I can get,” Ben­nett wrote in an email to Puja.net web­site op­er­a­tor Ben­jamin Collins.

Six-fig­ure pay­ments for prayers didn’t spare Ben­nett from a 17-count in­dict­ment on fraud charges. Nei­ther did the “hoodoo” spells that in­ves­ti­ga­tors sus­pected her of cast­ing to stymie fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, a claim fu­elled by a pe­cu­liar dis­cov­ery dur­ing an FBI search of her home.

Collins, a gov­ern­ment wit­ness at Ben­nett’s trial, tes­ti­fied on Tues­day that he sin­cerely be­lieved the religious rit­u­als would help Ben­nett, whose pay­ments ac­counted for roughly half of his web­site’s in­come. “We don’t nec­es­sar­ily pray with a guar­an­teed out­come,” he added.

Ben­nett, 56, raised more than $20 mil­lion US from 46 in­vestors in her lux­ury sports­wear com­pany, of­ten prey­ing on el­derly clients who knew her from a ra­dio show she hosted in the Washington, D.C., area, author­i­ties have said. They said she used in­vestors’ money for her per­sonal ben­e­fit, in­clud­ing jew­elry pur­chases, cos­metic med­i­cal pro­ce­dures and a $500,000 an­nual lease for a lux­ury suite at the Dal­las Cow­boys’ home sta­dium.

Ben­nett told U.S. Dis­trict Judge Paula Xi­nis on Thurs­day that she doesn’t in­tend to tes­tify at her trial. One of her trial lawyers, Den­nis Boyle, said Ben­nett in­vested $13 mil­lion of her own money into the fledg­ling ap­parel busi­ness, sell­ing as­sets and mort­gag­ing homes to gen­er­ate cash.

“She clearly be­lieves that this is a le­git­i­mate com­pany,” he said. “It catered to only the most dis­cern­ing peo­ple.”

But her ap­parel busi­ness, DJBen­nett, never made a profit and had at least $15.6 mil­lion in li­a­bil­i­ties and only $550,000 in rev­enue by De­cem­ber 2016, ac­cord­ing to a com­plaint filed by the U.S. Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion.

The in­dict­ment says she also used money from some in­vestors to pay oth­ers, but many lost ev­ery­thing they paid Ben­nett.

Joan Bar­ney, a re­tired travel agent whose hus­band has Parkin­son’s dis­ease and dementia, said she in­vested a to­tal of $200,000 in Ben­nett’s busi­ness. Bar­ney tes­ti­fied Wed­nes­day that she had known Ben­nett for more than 25 years and be­lieved her prom­ise that she could get her money back, plus 15 per cent in­ter­est, when­ever she needed it. She said Ben­nett sent her a busi­ness plan that pur­port­edly showed the com­pany was prof­itable.

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