Judge denies withdrawal of guilty plea in Folsom-based Ponzi scheme

Published: Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013 - 6:49 am

A federal judge Wednesday refused to let Anthony Vassallo, who admitted to bilking $45 million from investors in a Ponzi scheme out of Folsom, take back his guilty plea.

U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell Jr. turned down Vassallo's request to withdraw the plea, dismissing his claim that he made it under duress.

Vassallo is scheduled to be sentenced June 21 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

He admitted in February to masterminding a scam that defrauded customers of his firm, Equity Investment Management and Trading Inc., out of $45 million. The firm was shut down by authorities in early 2009.

Last month, however, Vassallo tried to withdraw the plea, saying he admitted his guilt only because it was impossible to prepare for trial while he was locked up at the Butte County jail in Oroville. His lawyer contended that the jail doesn't have decent telephones or storage room for Vassallo's legal documents.

Prosecutors immediately opposed Vassallo's effort.

"Unfortunately for Vassallo, this is no game, and the entry of a guilty plea is not so light a thing that he can take it up on a lark and then cast if off on a whim," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Jean Hobler in court papers filed last week.

In his ruling, Burrell said Vassallo "made no mention of being pressured to plead guilty during the (February) plea hearing."

Instead, Vassallo "testified under oath" that he pleaded guilty because he wanted to, the judge wrote.

The Vassallo case was one of the largest local Ponzi schemes in recent memory, with more than 300 investors victimized. Vassallo promised his investors huge returns through an automated stock-trading program.

Call The Bee's Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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