Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, October 15, 2013


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Ninth Circuit Upholds Fraud Sentence for Sacramento Businessman

Panel Says Impact on Investors Justified Term Exceeding Guideline and Prosecutor’s Recommendation




The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday affirmed a five-year prison sentence for a well-known Sacramento businessman who pled guilty to wire fraud.

The panel rejected contentions that the sentence imposed on Collins Max “Collie” Christensen Sr., now 55, was excessive, even though it exceeded the top of the guidelines range, which was 41 months, and the 33-month term recommended by prosecutors as part of a plea bargain.

Christensen, a prominent and seemingly successful real estate speculator and member of Sacramento society, admitted that he obtained about $2.4 million from 14 investors. The presentence investigator concluded that nearly $1 million of that was obtained by interstate wire and was used either for personal expenses or to make unauthorized investments.

Real Estate Projects

The Sacramento Bee reported that Christensen told investors their money was funding real estate projects in places as varied as Cabo San Lucas, Yuba County, Modesto and Mississippi. U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez informed counsel before sentencing that he was considering an above-guidelines sentence. He ultimately rejected the defense contention that Christensen fully intended to pay investors their due, but got caught up in the failure of the real estate market.

“Mr. Christensen indicated that he did not set out to bilk his investors,” the judge said. “I accept that. But, again, that’s only half the story. At some point he did consciously and intentionally decide to bilk his investors, and that conduct continued for a period of years, and it involved a number of different investors in the same type of conduct.”

Noting that more than $500,000 was used to pay personal expenses—including more than $13,000 per month in mortgage payments on his home, his daughter’s college tuition, and his gambling debt—and that he had a 28-year-old conviction for taking money under false pretenses, the judge concluded that departure from the guidelines was appropriate.

‘Accepted Failure’

Had Christensen “accepted failure” and shut the scheme down earlier, the judge told him, he could have “saved not only your family, but all of these victims…from having to postpone their retirement, have their marriages destroyed, lose their jobs or lose their homes.”

The defendant’s conduct, he said, included “lying, covering up, using funds for personal purposes, destroying the victims’ lives, cheating victims out of significant sums of money that they needed, and taking advantage of personal relationships.”

He has been incarcerated since Dec. 5, 2011, and is now at U.S. Penitentiary-Tucson, according to Bureau of Prisons records. He is due to be released in April 2016.

Mendez declined to allow Christensen to postpone his surrender in order to spend the holidays with his family, noting the victims’ holidays were unlikely to be pleasant.

The defense argued on appeal that the sentence involved illegal “double-counting” because the factors cited by the judge were already accounted for by the Sentencing Guidelines, in the form of a 14-level enhancement based on the size of the victims’ losses.

Argument Rejected

Senior U.S. District Judge William A. Stafford of the Northern District of Florida, who authored the opinion of the Ninth Circuit while sitting by designation, rejected the argument.

“[W]hen selecting an above Guidelines sentence for Christensen, the district court was not prohibited from considering the extent to which the Guidelines did not sufficiently account for the nature and circumstances of Christensen’s offense, including the amount of the loss, the number of victims, or the harm to the victims, even though the Guidelines account for these factors either implicitly or explicitly, to some extent.”

Nor, Stafford went on to say, did the fact that Christensen accepted responsibility for his actions by waiving indictment and entering a plea agreement make the sentence clearly excessive.

Judge Jay S. Bybee concurred in the opinion, but Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima dissented. Tashima argued that a “fair reading of the record” shows that losses that were not attributable to the crime to which the defendant pled guilty were considered in passing sentence.

 The case is United States v. Christensen, 11-10562.


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