A man whose investment program cost family members and scores of other people $500,000 was convicted Friday in Baton Rouge by a federal court jury on all eight counts of mail fraud.
Evers F. Harris, 40, and his wife leased a $535,000 home in Las Vegas and spent investor funds on two Jaguar automobiles, diamond jewelry, expensive clothes and trips to casinos and spas, Harris conceded a day earlier.
But Harris told jurors he felt pressure to spend money on “role playing” in an effort to sell secret inventions he hoped would earn money for his investors.
Harris admitted he told people their investments were fully insured, but did not tell them his wife was the only beneficiary of his $500,000 life insurance policy. He also admitted that he did not tell people their investment account statements were falsely inflated.
In 2005, “following Hurricane Katrina, Harris falsely informed his investors that he was closing the investment company due to the support that he was providing to victims of the storm,” U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux Jr. said in a post-trial statement. “Harris provided no such support, had no money to provide … to any of his victims and actually took money from additional victims in the Gulf Coast area following the storm.”
In final arguments Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Shubhra Shivpuri urged jurors to reject Harris’ claim that he dedicated himself to a serious investment program.
“This case isn’t about the American dream,” Shivpuri told the jury of eight women and four men. “It’s about a scheme. The dream was the scheme.”
Harris lied when he told investors their money was growing as a result of actual investments, Shivpuri alleged.
She said Harris also lied when he told jurors he considered his 86 customers’ money to be personal loans to himself rather than actual investments.
“Secrets and lies,” Shivpuri said. “It wasn’t a loan. It was an investment. The secret was that the money wasn’t invested. It was spent.”
In September 2005, Shivpuri said, Harris had $838 in a bank account that he told investors contained $92,866.
“Harris Investments wasn’t making any money,” Shivpuri said. “All he was doing was robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Harris told jurors Thursday that his family members and other investors didn’t hear from him for years after his investment program collapsed in 2006 because he and his wife were homeless and living out of an automobile.
Marci Blaize, Harris’ lead attorney, said earlier that Harris never intended to defraud anyone, that he actually believed he could make money from plans to market a safe-driver program to state and local governments.
“He’s an investor,” Blaize told jurors Friday. “He told you.”
Blaize added: “The one thing … Harris is guilty of is being naive in his business practices.”
The indictment on which jurors convicted Harris contains the allegation that Harris told his investors their money was fully insured by the FDIC and would result in profits ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent.
Investors testified that Harris told them the money was insured by the FDIC.
“I think we’ve heard the name FDIC enough,” Blaize told jurors. “It’s not written anywhere” in investor contracts. “What (Harris) meant was that he had it insured by other means. He had a life insurance policy in effect. Where’s the lie in that?”
Blaize concluded: “Harris Investments wasn’t a scheme to defraud anyone. He still thinks this is going to work. He’s still an innocent man.”
The FBI investigation proved otherwise, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard L. Bourgeois Jr. told the jury.
“Who is this guy who took $500,000 and spent it in two years?” asked Bourgeois.
Bourgeois’ use of the word “took” continued a courtroom dispute he had a daily earlier with Harris.
In that exchange, Bourgeois asked Harris why he “took money” from investors in south Louisiana and McComb, Miss., after Katrina devastated the area.
“ ‘Took’ sounds very impolite, rude,” Harris told Bourgeois.
Harris, however, eventually agreed that he accepted investment money from Louisiana and Mississippi residents after the hurricane.
On Friday, Bourgeois told jurors: “The simple answer to all this is he’s a con man.”
Bourgeois said the investment contracts Harris signed with his victims in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and New York “didn’t say, ‘I can steal your money.’ But that’s what he did.”
U.Sw. District Judge James J. Brady did not immediately schedule a sentencing hearing for Harris, who remains free on bail.