Business & Real Estate

Former Sacramento Capitals owner prepares to accept sentence for fraud

Deepal Wannakuwatte, who admitted to perpetrating one of the costliest Ponzi schemes in Sacramento history, appears ready to take his medicine.

After firing his first lawyer and claiming he’d been coerced into pleading guilty, Wannakuwatte stood silently in court Thursday as his new attorney asked a federal judge to schedule a sentencing hearing.

U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley agreed and set sentencing for 2 p.m. Nov. 13.

“There will be a sentencing after all,” said Wannakuwatte’s lawyer, Philip Cozens, in an interview afterward.

Cozens told The Sacramento Bee that he’s still reviewing the case but that it’s unlikely Wannakuwatte will seek to withdraw his plea. Legal experts say it’s difficult for a defendant to get his plea withdrawn once he’s admitted guilt.

Prosecutor Michael Beckwith, an assistant U.S. attorney, declined comment.

The former owner of the now-defunct Sacramento Capitals professional tennis team, Wannakuwatte pleaded guilty in May to a count of wire fraud, admitting that he persuaded investors and bankers to pump tens of millions of dollars into his West Sacramento medical-supply company under false pretenses.

Under the terms of his guilty plea, the 63-year-old Sri Lanka native is expected to get a 20-year prison term.

Officials said Wannakuwatte raked in $200 million over the course of a decade. Because some early investors got their money back, as is typical in a Ponzi scheme, the net loss has been estimated at $108 million.

Prosecutors called it possibly the biggest Ponzi case in the region’s history. Wannakuwatte has filed for bankruptcy protection, and officials said they believe his debts far outweigh his assets.

Court records show that Wannakuwatte told investors and lenders that his company, International Manufacturing Group, had secured $100 million in contracts to supply surgical gloves to veterans hospitals. In fact, the contracts were worth just $25,000.

Wannakuwatte was supposed to be sentenced Aug. 7. Instead, in front of a courtroom packed with victims waiting to speak, he fired his lawyer, Donald Heller, charging in a letter to the judge that his guilty plea had been coerced. Heller denied that and said the case against Wannakuwatte was “overwhelming,” but he didn’t contest his dismissal.

Wannakuwatte bought the Capitals in 2012 but announced in early February he was moving the team to Las Vegas because he couldn’t find a permanent stadium in Sacramento. He was arrested two weeks later and has been in jail without bail ever since.

The team was shut down, its franchise revoked, soon after by the World TeamTennis league.

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