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Fraudster’s new scam involves Nxivm cult, fake Miami yacht biz


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An image from a website created by James David Williams for his fictional yacht company Universal Yacht Management, which he said was based in Miami.

For a film producer who pleaded guilty to defrauding investors of millions of dollars, time behind bars appears to have been one more dubious business opportunity — one that will land him in prison again for a year and a half.

James David Williams spent nine months incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn in 2018 as he awaited sentencing for his role in a scheme in which he and two other producers told investors that their money was earmarked for films that would star Nicolas Cage and Harry Connick Jr., among others, while instead pocketing the cash to pay for lavish vacations, luxury cars, yacht loan payments and the down payment on a $3.5 million Calabasas, Calif., home. A Hollywood agent subsequently also pleaded guilty in connection to the scheme.

Federal prosecutors suggest that Williams’ time in prison was fruitful, as it coincided with the incarceration of Keith Raniere, leader of the New York cult-like group Nxivm, which has attracted notoriety for its roster of Hollywood members and for an offshoot of the group in which women were sexually abused by Raniere and branded with his initials. The two may have interacted behind bars.

Throughout 2020, a company tied to Williams took in more than $500,000, connected to the production of a film about the cult. In October 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison on multiple charges, including sex trafficking.

While prosecutors said Williams used much of the money for personal expenses, the man responsible for the payments said he was no victim and suggested that the charges against Williams were designed to thwart the film’s release.

Williams cooperated with the government in its original cases against his co-conspirators and was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood to time served and ordered to pay more than $15 million in restitution to victims of the scheme.

At his December 2018 sentencing Williams expressed remorse for his crimes.

“I fully accept the responsibility for my actions,” he said. “I will accept the sentence from this Court, and I will strive my hardest and commit to my fullest to work honestly to pay restitution to my victims and lead a law-abiding life.”

But months after his sentencing, as Williams began a three-year period of parole, he began a new fraud, falsely claiming to his parole officer that he was employed by a fictitious yacht management company called “Universal Yacht Management.” He made up the name of a supervisor at the company, “Henry Marker,” and created a fake website for the company, listing its business address in Miami.

He used his purported employment as justification for travel to Florida and Hawaii and to mask his earnings from the film production. He falsified pay stubs showing income from the fake yacht company, all the while keeping his payments related to the film secret.

Rather than use the money on film-related expenses, prosecutors write that he used the money to continue funding a lavish lifestyle, including more than $168,000 spent on boat- and marina-related expenses and more than $50,000 spent on his wife’s credit card and car payment bills. He did little to repay money owed to his victims. To date, Williams has paid $11,900 of the more than $15 million he owes in restitution.

“After I was lenient with you when I first sentenced you, you purposely violated important conditions of supervised release just four months after I sentenced you,” said Wood, the same judge who had sentenced him in 2018, in sentencing him Friday to 18 months in prison.

The payments for the Nxivm film came from an account associated with an “Eduardo Ramirez.”

A former member of Nxivm named Eduardo Asunsolo Ramirez heads an organization called Make Justice Blind, which argues that the charges against Raniere and the cult were unfounded.

After publication, Ramirez sent the following statement to the Herald:

“I gathered a group of investors to expose corruption and injustice in the NXIVM case including how federal agents may have planted evidence. Dave Williams was someone we tapped because of his filmmaking experience to bring this message out to a wider audience, his research was immensely helpful. I suspect the government’s attempt to imprison him after he completed his probation may have more to do with suppressing the release of his film than the probation infractions.”

McClatchy previously reported on the business connections between Williams, his co-conspirator, Steven Brown, and Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign aide and deputy to Paul Manafort. Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the government in 2018 in connection to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Money that Williams and Brown stole from investors also made its way to a national security nonprofit launched in 2013 by Elliot Broidy, a former top Republican fundraiser who pleaded guilty in 2020 to charges connected to not registering as a foreign agent. He was pardoned by former President Trump in his final hours in office. Brown was sentenced in December 2018 to more than five years in prison.

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Elliott and Robin Broidy in 2012 Alex J. Berliner Associated Press

In October, one of Williams’ victims wrote a letter to Wood, imploring that she impose a strict sentence.

“There is still not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him, and the pain he has caused my family that I don’t feel a profound sense of sadness,” the victim wrote. “By contrast, I imagine that there isn’t a day that goes by that [Williams] doesn’t reflect on things and laugh.”

This story was originally published December 15, 2021 8:56 AM.

Ben Wieder is a data and investigative reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He worked previously at the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. His work has been honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, National Press Foundation, Online News Association and Association of Health Care Journalists.




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