By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A 73-year-old Hilo woman accused of bilking 14 investors of about $600,000 in an international oil investment scam has cut a plea deal with federal prosecutors which calls for no more jail time.
On May 31, Roberta Beck “Buddy” Wong pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Honolulu to wire fraud. In exchange for her plea, 27 other charges were dropped. According to court documents, Wong was released from custody later that day on $50,000 bond. She’s scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 7 at 2:45 p.m. by U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi.
The plea agreement stipulates that Wong will be sentenced to jail time already served and supervised release, the federal term for probation, for five years. It also orders her to make restitution to victims “not to exceed approximately $600,000,” and prohibits her “from participating in any promotion of any investment program, the collection of any birth dates, social security numbers, and financial account numbers without the consent of the U.S. Probation Office.”
The document states that further criminal activity by Wong “in the next five years may result in the termination of supervised release.” It also stated that the plea agreement was made “due to the extreme health problems now facing” Wong, but didn’t specify the nature of those problems.
The judge is not bound by the terms of the plea deal, according to the document, and the charge she pleaded guilty to carries a possible 20-year prison term.
Wong was originally indicted on June 21, 2012, on 20 charges alleging that she had run a Ponzi scheme which netted about $475,000 from investors over a period of almost a decade. Subsequent indictments filed in October and December added additional charges, with prosecutors alleging that Wong had continued to run the scam while she was awaiting trial on the original charges. Her bond was revoked and she was jailed on Oct. 3.
According to the original indictment, starting in December 2003, Wong “and others known and unknown to the grand jury” devised “a scheme and artifice to defraud and to obtain money from others … by means of materially false pretenses, representations and promises, as well as omissions of material facts … .” Wong “held herself out to various prospective investors as being associated with the ‘Rockefeller Foundation’” and as “a successful person with numerous ties to investment programs and prominent people in Africa.” It also states that Wong told investors that for putting their money “in oil programs or investments” they would “gain a return of approximately eight times or more on their original investment.”
According to the indictment, Wong “from time to time … told her investors to send their money directly to Africa made payable to various individuals … involved in the oil investment program” and that investors could expect a return on their investments “within three to six months after they provided the funds.” She told investors who complained they had not received any returns that “it would be only a slight delay until their funds were in hand.”
Wong then deposited $65,500 in bank transfers from investors’ accounts into her Homestreet Bank account in Honolulu, and the remainder of the funds in others’ accounts and by wire transfers to accounts under other names in Honolulu and Ghana. The document stated that investors’ funds came from Hawaii, California, New York and Nevada. Investors and others receiving funds were identified by initials only.
A later document states that Department of Homeland Security agents interviewed Robert Corder of Corpus Christi, Texas, on Aug. 20, and that Corder told agents “that he had been persuaded to invest $14,000, of which $2,000 was his money, to be wired to Ghana for investment in an oil production related scheme.” The document said that Wong continued to communicate with Corder by phone and email and that Corder kicked in an additional $35,000.
According to the document, Corder’s cell phone showed that Wong called him twice on both Aug. 14 and 15 and once on Aug. 17. Corder also reportedly turned over recordings of his conversations with Wong and Klahr, as well as email communications. Corder allegedly told authorities the last time Wong contacted him was during the week of Sept. 17.
Les Osborne, criminal section chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Honolulu, declined to comment in January if Klahr had cooperated with authorities. Court records indicate that Klahr has not been charged.
Wong is the mother of prominent Hilo baseball coach and hitting instructor Kaha Wong and grandmother of Kolten Wong, who is playing AAA ball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, and Kean Wong, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this month.
Osborne told the Tribune-Herald last July that Roberta Wong’s family members are not in any way involved.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.