Courts & Crime

Miami jeweler accused in Ponzi scheme

As a kid, Luis Felipe Perez cleaned bathrooms at a taco joint. By his 30s, he was a high-end jeweler, riding the streets of Hialeah in a Bentley.

He traveled with bodyguards. Donated tens of thousands of dollars to local and national politicians. And even dined at a fete for the king and queen of Spain when the royal couple visited Miami.

But his businesses, the feds say, were a sham. His jewelry companies had no employees -- and the man known simply as ``Felipito'' orchestrated a $40 million Ponzi scheme and took part in a $12 million bank fraud conspiracy, according to law enforcement authorities. Even diamonds offered as collateral to investors were fake.

Perez, already facing federal charges for the alleged pyramid scheme, was indicted last week on additional federal charges, accused of conspiring with two others in a scheme to fraudulently obtain millions of dollars in commercial lines of credit.

The allegations paint a far different portrait of Felipito from the Hialeah golden boy who gave his mother his first paycheck for $60 and who was mentored by the late Rolando Blanco, a pillar of the community. With his groomed goatee and penchant for well-cut suits, Perez, 38, cut a dashing figure around town. ``In Hialeah, a person who goes around in a Bentley is not an everyday thing,'' said former Police Chief Rolando Bolaños. ``And Felipito did it with a chauffeur, bodyguards and a laptop. It was like his mobile office.''

The Securities and Exchange Commission says investors' money supported Perez's lavish lifestyle. He and his ex-wife bought a $3.2 million Mediterranean-style villa on the edge of Coral Gables, east of U.S. 1. Perez also spent $400,000 to lease luxury cars; $200,000 on vacations; $300,000 on clothes for his wife; $200,000 on extravagant dinners; and $100,000 on art, according the SEC.

In June, Perez was accused of swindling about 35 investors in a $40 million Ponzi scheme from 2006 through May 2009. He faces a civil complaint by the SEC and six federal counts of securities fraud.

He allegedly promised investors high rates of return -- up to 120 percent annually -- in exchange for investing first in his jewelry business, then in pawn shops in New York.

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