A Miami businessman accused of being the mastermind behind the largest fraud case in Vermont's history pleaded guilty on Friday over a failed plan to build a biotechnology plant using tens of millions of dollars in foreign investors' money.
Ariel Quiros, 64, the former owner of Jay Peak and Burke Mountain ski resorts in northern Vermont, changed his plea to guilty on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and the concealment of material information.
Nine other charges were dropped. Quiros pleaded guilty via video conference to the three separate charges, one at a time, after being asked by US District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford. During the hourlong hearing, Quiros answered "Yes, Your Honor'' or "No, Your Honor'' to a series of questions from Crawford.
"Mr. Quiros' guilt was beyond doubt," Michael Pieciak, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation said in a statement issued after the hearing. "Our department's ten-month investigation traced every penny of investor money and determined that much of it had inappropriately been funneled to support Mr. Quiros' lavish lifestyle.''
Quiros, of Key Biscayne, Florida, and three others were indicted over a failed plan to build a biotechnology plant in Newport, Vermont, using millions raised through the EB-5 visa program, which encourages foreigners to invest in U.S. projects that create jobs in exchange for a chance to earn permanent U.S. residency.
Quiros pleaded not guilty in May 2019 to 12 felony charges. He signed the plea deal on Aug. 5. Under the plea agreement, Quiros would serve just over eight years in prison.
The final sentence will be up to Crawford at sentencing, which will be held at a later date. The plea agreement states that Quiros would be sentenced after two other defendants, former Jay Peak president William Stenger and William Kelly, an adviser to Quiros, are sentenced if convicted.
Stenger and Kelly have pleaded not guilty. A fourth defendant remains at large. Stenger's lawyers have objected to any delay in sentencing.
The federal Securities and Exchange Commission and the state of Vermont first accused Quiros and Stenger in 2016 of a "massive eight-year fraudulent scheme" that involved misusing more than $200 million of about $400 million raised from foreign investors "in Ponzi-like fashion.''
The indictment alleges that by 2011, Quiros and a codefendant persuaded about 169 investors to give a total of $93 million for the biotechnology project. Their plans brought the promise of jobs to a remote area of northern Vermont that has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
Paul Monette, the mayor of Newport -- where the biotechnology plant was to be built -- said in a statement Friday he was glad the wheels of justice were turning.
"Newport is moving forward with many initiatives and it is my hope that the receiver will begin the process of moving the two Newport properties left vacant after the EB-5 scandal,'' he said referring to the official appointed by the government to manage the properties that were part of the EB-5 plan.
About a half-dozen projects other than the biotechnology plant were largely completed, Pieciak said. Among the projects that were completed include the Jay Peak Hotel, an indoor water park, ice arena and golf course.
"The fraud in the Northeast Kingdom caused significant harm to the community, and although a guilty plea will not undo that harm, it will help the community heal and continue to move forward,'' Pieciak said in his statement.
There were about 800 investors in all the projects.
"About 200 are still waiting for the green card - which are now at risk due to the fraud,'' he said.
Quiros and Stenger settled civil charges with the SEC, with Quiros surrendering more than $80 million in assets, including the two ski resorts.
A court appointed receiver has been overseeing Jay Peak and Burke with plans to eventually sell them.
AP Reporter Wilson Ring contributed to this report from Stowe, Vermont.