by Rone Tempest, WyoFile
Former Wyoming Catholic College chief financial officer Paul McCown was sentenced [July 5] to five years and three months in prison and ordered to pay restitution for his elaborate scheme to defraud a federal coronavirus relief program and a New York investment company out of millions of dollars.
Chief U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl sentenced McCown for seven counts of wire fraud, to be served concurrently at a yet-to-be-determined federal facility in Orange County, California. Judge Skavdahl allowed McCown to surrender himself to correctional officers at a date to be determined by a probation officer.
Arguing for a stiffer 78- to 98-month sentence, assistant U.S. Attorney Christyne Martens said that McCown perpetrated the massive fraud — including impersonating bank officers, lying about what he claimed was a booming gin distillery business and falsely claiming to have amassed a vast fortune of more than $750 million — in a “cold, calculated” manner.
“His conduct here is nothing less than devastating to the people around him,” Martens said. “We have an intelligent, motivated person who knew it was wrong, knew it would cause harm and did it anyway.”
McCown’s attorney Jason Tangeman argued for a lighter 48-month sentence. Tangeman described his client as a troubled soul who, on the exterior, was a “model citizen” but who suffered from shame and a sense of worthlessness that led to a “hero complex,” alcohol abuse, marital infidelity and fraud.
“He’s not going to be in front of a judge on any criminal matter ever again,” Tangeman said.
As part of his fraud, McCown offered a $10-million donation to the tiny Wyoming Catholic College, making him by far the biggest contributor ever to the store-front school of just 190 students. Based on his contribution — most of which was later confiscated by FBI investigators — the college announced an ambitious expansion that was later curtailed.
After moving to Lander from Michigan in 2018, McCown quickly established himself as a prominent member of the Lander business community, serving on the town planning commission and as treasurer of the Lander Economic Development Commission. McCown embraced the western lifestyle, donning a cowboy hat and proudly proclaiming himself a “Cowboy Catholic.”
But after details of his fraud were first revealed in a 2021 federal civil lawsuit, his brief stint as a local hero ended. In March, the 35-year-old father of four pleaded guilty to seven counts of wire fraud. Each count carried a potential maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of $250,000.
“I loathe white collar crime,” Judge Skavdahl said in announcing the 63-month sentence on Friday in the Casper federal courthouse. The judge noted that the amount of planning and deceit in the case was significant and calculated over a long period of time. Sending a message to the public as a deterrence against similar fraud was a factor in determining McCown’s sentence, he said.
At the sentencing hearing, McCown appeared tearful. After pausing to gather himself, he told the court that on the day in July 2021 when he was first visited by federal investigators, Wyoming Catholic College President Glenn C. Arbery had published a column on the college website about Dante’s Inferno.
“In Dante’s Inferno, the worst circle of hell is betrayal,” McCown said through tears. “And that’s what I did.”
During the past year, McCown said he’s confessed his sins and deepest secrets to friends and family. “The most shocking thing is,” he said, “I always thought my whole life that if people knew who I really was, they’d go running the other way.”
He then turned to his wife, who was standing in the courtroom rocking their infant child. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have betrayed you in every possible, terrible way — and you’re still here.”
According to federal court filings, the fraud began in the spring of 2020 when McCown received $841,863 from the federal coronavirus relief program, or CARES Act, that was administered by the Wyoming Business Council.
To obtain the money, McCown falsely claimed to have an active gin distillery business that had 81 employees and an annual payroll of $5.3 million. McCown later claimed to have converted his business into a booming hand sanitizer operation that had contracts to supply airports and NFL stadiums.
In September 2020, McCown paid $700,000 cash to buy the large Lander home of Wyoming Catholic College Board Chairman David Kellogg, redubbing the property “McCown Ranch.”
Alerted to possible fraud by online tips, the Wyoming Business Council conducted an audit in January 2021 and reported its concerns to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After the FBI determined that “McCown’s gin business had never sold any gin or incurred any pandemic related losses or expenses,” the Business Council demanded that McCown return the $841,863.
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This led to the second part of the elaborate fraud scheme, in which McCown impersonated a Wyoming Community Bank officer and falsified bank statements while claiming to have a personal fortune of more than $750 million. He then told representatives of the New York investment company Ria R Squared, Inc. that he wanted them to manage his money, but asked for a bridge loan of $15 million until the final transfer of his fortune to Ria R Squared could be made.
The New York company agreed to the $15 million loan (minus $300,000 for management fees) and transferred it to McCown, who then quickly dispersed it to his personal Goldman Sachs account and to relatives and friends. Claiming that he had accumulated vast wealth from his purported distillery and hand sanitizer business, McCown also donated $10 million to Wyoming Catholic College and, according to court records, promised $10 million more.
Fully into his role as a generous philanthropist and local hero, he told members of the nonprofit Lander Ambassadors civic organization that he was willing to donate up to $1 million for an all day-music festival with famous performers like Grammy award-winning country and western singer Kacey Musgraves.
After discovering the fraud, Ria R Squared sued McCown, Wyoming Catholic College and other recipients of the McCown largesse, including Wyoming Catholic College Vice President Jonathan Tonkowich, to whom McCown gave $750,000. FBI agents were able to seize more than $13 million, but federal lawsuits are still pending to recover money from the college and Tonkowich.
The federal charges against McCown dealt only with the Wyoming Business Council COVID-19 grants and the Ria R Squared loan. Not included in the charges is a $1.1 million federal loan he obtained under the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program, nor the $1.29 million in two PPP loans he secured for Wyoming Catholic College as its chief financial officer.
For the WCC loan, he claimed the college had 187 employees while the school itself has fewer than 200 students. Interviewed subsequently, WCC administrators placed that actual employee count at 60 full-time and five part-time. Obtaining the PPP loans was itself a break from the college’s long-stated policy of not accepting any federal money in order to avoid federal education requirements.
At the July 8 sentencing hearing, attorneys haggled for nearly three hours over the “actual loss” allowed to Ria R Squared as part of restitution for lost earnings. Prosecutors and Ria R Squared claimed they lost a projected 16.26% in earnings from the $14.7 million, but Judge Skavdahl allowed a calculation of 5.5%, which would be at least $700,000 that McCown will be required to repay.
In a statement released Sunday, spokesman for Wyoming Catholic College Joseph Susanka said, “We remain deeply grateful for the many friends and supporters who have stood by us through the difficult events of this year because they believe in our mission and the bright hope our students and graduates offer. And we trust that McCown’s sentencing will bring some measure of closure to the emotions of these past months.
“We pray that the Lord will protect his family, and we hope sincerely that his trials in this life work for his redemption through Jesus Christ. May we come to forgive him in the spirit of the Lord’s own prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’”