Local businessman named in Ponzi scheme lawsuit

A local businessman who was paid tens of thousands of dollars by Costa Mesa to act as a consultant during the city's 60th anniversary celebration is suspected of participating in a Ponzi scheme that cheated a Newport Beach man out of millions, according to a lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Roland Barrera of Costa Mesa allegedly worked as a salesman in an investment scam run out of Austin, Texas, that collected almost $18 million from at least 80 clients who were promised generous returns from oil and gas securities.

According to evidence presented in the SEC's legal action, $3 million of that came from a Newport Beach investor whom Barrera approached in July 2012.

Barrera, who also owns the Casa bar in Costa Mesa, and a fellow salesman, Deven Sellers of Colorado, pocketed $400,000 on that transaction, even though they told the Newport Beach investor that their commission would be "small," according to documents filed in a federal court in Texas this month.

Costa Mesa paid Barrera's company, The SUN Grp LLC, more than $72,000 to provide entertainment at the city's 60th anniversary celebration in June, according to City Council records.

Compensation came in 12 payments, some of which specified a purpose, such as equipment rentals or booking musical act Eric Burdon and the Animals, while others were marked only as consulting payments.

The SUN Grp, also called Sophisticates United Network, is not mentioned in the SEC's filing, but according to evidence presented by the SEC, Barrera used his SUN Grp email address while soliciting investments in the alleged Ponzi scheme.

The city has been auditing finances of the 60th anniversary event since August when it placed on leave two city employees assigned to planning the celebration.

One of those employees, Public Affairs Manager Dan Joyce, told a citizens planning committee in March that Barrera and his company would handle talent booking, according to meeting minutes.

Costa Mesa budgeted $125,000 to produce the event, but a total cost has not been announced.

City officials have refused to release public documents from the celebration until the audit is complete.

City spokesman Bill Lobdell did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

However, Lobdell told the Orange County Register that there is no known link between the city's anniversary party and the allegations against Barrera.

Barrera did not return a call left for him by the Daily Pilot.

The SEC asserts that Barrera and alleged co-conspirator Sellers weren't registered to work as brokers when they called, sent emails and made in-person presentations to potential investors for their bosses' alleged Ponzi scheme.

Two partners, Robert Helms and Janniece Kaelin, allegedly ran the scam out of an Austin office.

They promised investors that 99% of their money would be put directly into oil and gas interests, where they could earn up to 500% returns from royalties in five to seven years, according to the SEC's civil complaint.

Instead only 10% of the money was actually invested, the SEC alleges, and the rest was used to pay back earlier investors or line the pockets of the defendants.

The scheme allegedly ran from July 2011 until this month when the SEC asked for an injunction that includes freezing the defendants' assets.

The agency is seeking repayment of the allegedly ill-gotten funds and penalties yet to be determined.

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