The Ponzi schemer, trade secrets thief and others pardoned by Trump

CBS NEWS

Donald Trump’s eleventh-hour pardons in virtually his last act as president included the man behind a $300 million Ponzi scheme whom one of his 1,400 victims once described in court documents as a “scumbag.”  Also on the list: a former Google executive convicted of stealing trade secrets, a real estate developer charged in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, and a Las Vegas gambler imprisoned for his role in an insider-trading scandal.

In all, Trump pardoned 73 people and commuted the sentences of 70 others, including his former political strategist, Steve Bannon. Rumors had circulated that the “Tiger King” documentary star Joe Exotic would be pardoned. He wasn’t. But among those receiving presidential mercy were people convicted of various financial and other white-collar crimes, including three found guilty of defrauding investors in real estate deals. 

Here are some of the people Trump pardoned on his last day in the White House.

Corporate espionage

Perhaps the highest profile former corporate executive to make Trump’s pardon list was Anthony Levandowski. Once a top Google engineer, he pleaded guilty last year to downloading a trove of files that contained some secrets related to the search company’s development of self-driving cars. The purloined intellectual property eventually landed in the hands of Uber when it bought an autonomous-trucking company Levandowski formed after leaving Google. He was sentenced in August to 18 months in prison. The White House said in a statement that the pardon was supported by two of Silicon Valley’s most prominent Trump supporters — investor Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey, who founded Oculus, the virtual reality headset company bought by Facebook six years ago. 

Ponzi schemes

In 2015, Fred Clark was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme that raised $300 million from more than 1,000 investors. Clark said his company was developing vacation condos, but many of the properties were never completed, and much of the money that came in went toward paying old investors. Many of his victims, who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars each, said their retirement savings were wiped out. Clark pocketed at least $22 million of the funds before fleeing to Central America. He was arrested in 2014 and in 2016 was sentenced by a judge to 40 years in prison, most of which he will now never serve.

“I was disgusted by it,” said Bruce Barnes, a lawyer who has spent years representing people who lost money in Clark’s investment scam, of the pardon. “There were some good people who were really hurt by the scam. Some of them are still dealing with debt collectors as a result of the scheme.” 

Insider trading 

An insider trading case involving sports gambler William “Billy” Walters made big news in 2016 largely because it involved professional golfer Phil Mickelson. Walters, who was once profiled by CBS’ 60 Minutes, made more than $40 million by trading shares of Dean Foods based on information he got from a former chairman of the company. The Securities and Exchange Commission couldn’t prove that Mickelson knew that Walters’ information was coming from an illegal source, so Mickelson was let off the hook after agreeing to pay back the nearly $1 million he made trading Dean Foods shares based on Walters’ recommendations. Walters was sentenced to five years in prison, and will now be getting out one year early.

College admissions scandal

Miami real estate developer Robert Zangrillo was caught in the same college admissions dragnet that ensnared celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. His case had yet to go to trial when Trump pardoned him. The White House said Zangrillo deserved a pardon because his daughter hadn’t resorted to arranging for someone else to take an admissions test on her behalf. According to court documents, Zangrillo paid $250,000 in bribes, faked a record of accomplishment in the sport of crew and arranged for someone else to take his daughter’s college classes to boost her GPA in order to facilitate her transfer to the University of Southern California. Zangrillo’s legal problems aren’t over, however. He still faces separate charges from the Federal Trade Commission, which alleges that one of Zangrillo’s companies ran scam websites set up to look like they represented government agencies.

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