Charles Ruhl Jr. said Friday that he stole from his real estate company to "save" it.
The 59-year-old commercial real estate developer from a prominent Davenport family gave a statement before a federal judge sentenced him to 12 months and a day in prison for wire fraud and money laundering.
"Today is about my illegal attempt to save partners after the recent economic crisis," Ruhl said.
He pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a four-year scheme to steal $1.3 million from dozens of investors. Ruhl said Friday that he took the money to "keep up appearances" that he and his company, Ruhl & Ruhl Commercial, had dodged an economic crisis that was ruining others in the industry.
The success of his partners, investors and employees depended on that appearance, he said.
"I wanted to ensure it would work out for them," he said.
He admitted using some of the money for his "own use."
Documents state that he paid property tax on a vacation home in Michigan, for maintenance on a personal plane and for his daughter's college tuition using money he took from the company.
His was not the usual embezzlement case, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose said. He was not feeding a gambling addiction, she added.
"Yours was an appearance issue," she said.
Rose said she was "troubled" that Ruhl perpetrated the scheme after being caught once before, got away with it for a long time, roped other employees into it and tried to cover up his actions by falsifying records.
Prosecutor John Keller called Ruhl a "millionaire who takes money that's not his."
Ruhl's attorney, Leon Spies, said it was the "disastrous" financial climate of 2008 that "got Mr. Ruhl in this courtroom."
Ruhl's court statement was the first time he had spoken publicly on the case. He apologized to the judge for his handwritten note and then cleared his throat before uttering a few words about how he had embarrassed himself, his family and his company.
The sentencing hearing lasted five hours.
Agents from the IRS and FBI testified with the help of 26 government exhibits.
IRS special agent Mike Thole said Ruhl's earliest recorded unlawful transaction occurred in February 2008 with a withdrawal of $35,000 from Lincoln Healthcare Building LLC, an account Ruhl managed.
Ruhl continued to falsify financial statements to conceal money he withdrew from other investors, Thole said. Ruhl also illegally withdrew from other accounts, including Caxton on Bass St. LLC, Biaggi's West Des Moines LLC and Crow Valley Park Venture LLC.
Three of the properties are in the Quad-Cities. Lincoln Healthcare and Crow Valley Park Venture are in Bettendorf. Caxton on Bass St. is in Moline.
Ruhl assured investors "nothing improper" was going on, Thole testified.
Throughout Friday's testimony, Ruhl leafed through stacks of documents and scribbled notes to his attorney. Fewer than 10 people observed the courtroom procedures.
Ruhl & Ruhl Commercial is a separate entity from Ruhl & Ruhl Realtors, the Davenport-based residential real estate company.
One Ruhl & Ruhl Commerical employee testified for the defense.
Charles Ruhl hired Bonnie Voelkers as chief financial officer in December 2012 because he told her the economy had hurt the business and he wanted her to get it back on its feet.
"I found a huge mess," she testified.
Voelkers said that during her first week on the job, Ruhl asked her to complete a transaction between Caxton on Bass St. LLC and Lincoln Healthcare Building LLC.
She was confused by the request and asked her predecessor to come into the office. During the visit, Voelkers discovered a file folder with a stack of loan promissory notes in a desk drawer that related to the different LLC accounts. Some of the notes were not signed, she testified.
Voelkers testified that the notes tied to a general ledger and that “there was no question about what had been borrowed.”
She confronted Ruhl about the notes.
“I’m a very honest person, and I always do the correct thing,” she said.
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Ruhl told her that as the operating manager of the company, he had the right to borrow money against his own equity. He also promised her that he would get things straightened out by May, she testified.
Voelkers then went through the financial documents and tracked Ruhl's distributions to the accounts, which was $4.4 million, some of which was money from Ruhl’s company, and pulled all the promissory notes that were stored in the company’s internal server.
All the notes were time-stamped, and many of them were created on or around the day that the money was transferred, she testified.
Voelkers said Ruhl did not discourage her from straightening out the ledgers and notes.
The FBI raided the offices of Ruhl & Ruhl Commercial in May. Voelkers was surprised by the raid because “we had already fixed it,” and money had already been paid back to the accounts, she testified.
Keller asked her about an August 2012 financial statement that was sent to investors in which Ruhl asked her to include and then take off the amount of money he owed to the account.
Voelkers testified that Ruhl asked her to “reverse the fix,” meaning that he changed his mind about including the loan information on the statement.
FBI agent Jeff Huber testified that two of Ruhl's employees resigned when they found out about the scheme.
Two former accountants with Ruhl & Ruhl Commercial were "uncomfortable" with Ruhl's activity, Huber said. One resigned because she did not want any part in it.
Vicki Diamond resigned as CFO out of stress when she learned that certain funds coming out of partnership accounts were not being disclosed to partners, Thole testified.
Judge Rose called Ruhl's scheme a "shell game" that got out of control.
Spies said Ruhl had every intention of paying back the loans and has done so.
Ruhl has sold his company. As a result of the conviction, he has lost his real estate licenses in Iowa and Illinois.
Spies said Ruhl has "lost it all."
As Ruhl walked out of the courthouse alone, carrying an accordion folder under his arm, he responded, "yeah," when asked if he was glad that the case is over.