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Florida farmer convicted of bank fraud asks 11th Circuit to overturn 15-year sentence

An attorney for the farmer argued that a federal court made an error in calculating the multimillion-dollar losses to banks and financial institutions caused by her client’s scheme.

ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for a Florida farmer convicted of multiple bank and wire fraud charges asked an 11th Circuit panel Friday to overturn his 15-year federal prison sentence.

A public defender representing David Ridling told the panel that her client’s sentence for scheming to defraud five financial institutions, a financial services provider and one Orlando business out of more than $50 million is excessive.

In an apparent attempt to save his floundering farm, Ridling used false brokerage account statements, fabricated tax returns and bogus financial statements to obtain loans and lines of credit. He pleaded guilty in 2020 to multiple counts of wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft.

According to a brief filed in the 11th Circuit by his attorney, Ridling told lenders that he had millions of dollars in two brokerage accounts to induce them to extend lines of credit or grant loans that they would not have otherwise given him. Ridling sent lenders fake brokerage statements and tax returns, claiming he had between $8 and $45 million in the accounts when, in fact, he never had more than $2,000.

Ridling also impersonated two Charles Schwab account representatives and established fake email accounts which he used to bolster his falsehoods.

An attorney for Ridling argued on Friday that a Florida federal judge wrongly construed her client’s actions as a Ponzi scheme and applied an incorrect legal standard based on recklessness to find that he intended nearly $53 million in losses to the lenders.

The issue before the Atlanta-based appeals court hinges on whether Ridling should have been held responsible for “actual losses” from his scheme totaling $10.9 million or “intended losses” of $52.7 million. An intended loss refers to the financial harm caused by Ridling’s recklessness or conscious indifference to repaying the loans.

Michelle Yard, a public defender representing Ridling, told the panel that the decision to use the “intended loss” calculation in sentencing her client resulted in an unfair sentence.

“The district court determined Ridling’s intended loss by charging him with every dollar he ever sought,” Yard said.

The attorney told the panel that the amount calculated by the district court included money Ridling applied for, regardless of whether it was actually disbursed to her client by the lenders or used by him.

Yard also argued that Ridling intended to repay the lenders. She said he was using the money to pay off prior loans in hopes of building a successful farm, not using the money to fund a lavish lifestyle.

“He put it all into the farm,” Yard said. “He was living in a trailer that [the government] valued at $2,500.”

“Using the money for farmland lends credence to the argument that he was trying to repay [the loans,]” Yard argued, telling the panel that it “would make no sense” to put money into the farm if he didn’t intend to repay the loan.

Yard said that Ridling’s actions were “inconsistent” with a Ponzi scheme because when the money was not going toward the farm, it was being used to pay off other loans and older debts.

Arguing on behalf of the government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Holly Gershow said it was unclear what Ridling’s true intentions were.

“The record is really silent of any evidence of what Ridling intended to do with the loans. All he said was he didn’t intend for this to happen,” Gershow said.

Gershow argued that even if the district court judge had made a mistake during sentencing, the error was harmless.

But Yard told the panel that if there was evidence Ridling intended to pay back the loans, the amount of intended losses could go as low as zero.

Even if the appeals court overturns the sentencing decision, Yard admitted that Ridling would still receive a 20-level enhancement for his crimes.

"It’s not as though the defendant gets a windfall,” she said.

The panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, a Clinton appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judges Barbara Lagoa and Elizabeth Branch, both Trump appointees.

The judges did not indicate when a ruling would be issued in the case.

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