By Lukas I. Alpert
It may as well have been a remake of “The Grifters.”
An indie film producer has been sentenced to 13 years in prison for running a scam that took more than $60 million from investors looking to finance movies and Broadway shows and used it to buy fancy cars, designer clothes and flights on private jets.
Benjamin McConley, 39, of Miami, had pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiracy for his role in a complex movie-financing plot in which allegedly bilked investors looking to make movies, and then funneled the money into his own bank accounts.
McConley was accused along with producer Jason Van Eman of approaching financiers with the promise of matching their investments dollar for dollar in order to secure loans to pay for a film’s production. But prosecutors say the men never matched the money or applied for the loans.
Van Eman has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in March. McConley’s attorney didn’t immediately reply to a message seeking comment. A message left with Van Eman’s lawyer wasn’t immediately returned.
In some cases, the movies ultimately were made. In 2018, the men helped produce the critically acclaimed film, “The Tale,” starring Laura Dern which appeared on HBO /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T -1.05% . They also helped make the horror film, “The Sound,” with Rose McGowan and Christopher Lloyd in 2017, and 2016’s “A Quiet Passion,” a biopic about poet Emily Dickinson, starring Cynthia Nixon.
In many instances, prosecutors say McConley and Van Eman kept the money for themselves, buying stocks, investing in real estate, high-end furniture and expensive hotel accommodations, while leaving investors high and dry.
Federal prosecutors in Florida say the men conspired with Benjamin Rafael, a one-time employee at Wells Fargo, who provided phony letters from the bank stating that funds had been properly deposited and loans applied for.
Rafael, 31, was fired from Wells Fargo and later pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in federal prison earlier this year. Representatives for Wells Fargo /zigman2/quotes/203790192/composite WFC +0.66% didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Rafael’s attorneys, David Oscar Markus and Todd Yoder, said in a statement that their client “was a young and naïve pawn in a fraud scheme, who was used by sophisticated criminals. He immediately accepted responsibility.”
Starting in 2015, the men were hit by several lawsuits from investors, including Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Martino and Houston trial lawyer Tony Buzbee. Investors in a stage production of the film “Bull Durham,” also accused McConley and Van Eman of fraud.
Messages left with a lawyer for Martino and with Buzbee weren’t immediately returned.
With their legal entanglements swirling, prosecutors say McConley and Van Edam hired a reputation management firm to try to scrub the internet of references to the lawsuits they faced.
In addition to the jail term, McConley was also ordered to pay restitution to his victims and to forfeit as much as $69 million in assets.