RALEIGH, N.C. — A veteran of the multi-level marketing business is going on trial on federal charges related to what government investigators called a $900 million scam that bilked 1 million people across the United States and abroad.
A jury expected to be selected Tuesday will have to decide whether Paul Burks intended to mislead investors five years ago with fanciful promises of 125 percent returns at a time the economy limped out of the Great Recession.
Burks is charged with mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud in one of the biggest cases of the past decade involving alleged Ponzi schemes. If convicted, Burks could be sentenced to 65 years in prison and fined $1 million. The trial could run four weeks.
From a small, brick building in Lexington, North Carolina, Burks ran an online auction site. Participants were charged up to $1 to bid for the chance to buy heavily discounted consumer products like iPads. To drive customers to his auction site, Burks in 2011 launched a complicated online vehicle called ZeekRewards. It offered people who invested money, promoted the company on other websites and recruited other participants a share of auction profits.
Investments were capped at $10,000, but people could invest on behalf of their spouses, children or other relatives. Some mortgaged homes to raise their investment.
"The co-conspirators used this money, in Ponzi-like fashion, to pay other victim-investors in the scheme and to personally enrich themselves," prosecutors wrote in a court filing last month. "Put simply, Burks lied daily to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars for the scheme."
The Securities and Exchange Commission shut down ZeekRewards about 20 months later, calling it a Ponzi scheme on the verge of collapse.
Burks' former chief operating officer, Dawn Olivares, and her tech-savvy stepson have made plea deals with prosecutors and are expected to testify against him. Olivares became friends and worked with Burks on multilevel marketing companies since in the 1990s. Burks asked Olivares to join ZeekRewards and prosecutors said she collected at least $7.2 million for herself.
Burks allegedly pocketed about $11 million from ZeekRewards in 2011 alone, prosecutors said. He was a former county music disc jockey and performed as a magician in nursing homes in the 1980s and '90s. After Burks' company was shut down, federal investigators found a massive country music memorabilia collection that has since been auctioned off to refund investors.
Though Burks and his colleagues reported to the Internal Revenue Service that investors received more than $96 million in taxable disbursements in 2011, ZeekRewards actually paid out less than $13 million that year, prosecutors said.
"The vast majority of income reported to the IRS was fictional and had neither been earned nor received by the victim-investors," prosecutors wrote in a summary of their trial evidence. "As a result, individual victim-investors filed false tax returns with the IRS reporting phantom income that they never actually received."
Defense attorneys counter that Burks didn't misrepresent the ZeekRewards program and didn't mastermind a Ponzi or pyramid scheme. The parent company behind Burks' operations sold actual products — bids for the penny auction site or stakes in ZeekRewards, defense attorneys wrote in summing up expected trial arguments.
The ZeekRewards program collapsed under the pressure of rapid growth from more than 57,000 distinct users after the first year to 1.25 million months later just before the SEC shut it down, attorney Noell Tin wrote.
"Growth of this magnitude was overwhelming," he said.
Nonetheless, the parent company of ZeekRewards paid out 53 percent of the $939 million it generated during its lifespan, Tin wrote. "In other words," Burks' attorneys said, his company "made good on the core of its promise."
Federal investigators said earlier investors were paid with money coming from new investors as in a classic Ponzi scheme.
A court-appointed receiver said he's recouped $356 million from ZeekRewards executives and about 9,000 investors who made big money before the collapse. About $250 million has been returned to about 107,000 claimants, attorney Kenneth Bell said in an email. His pursuit of another more than $225 million includes a bank in the former Soviet country of Moldova.