Judge sends $12M message

That's the restitution an Oldsmar man must pay for a credit scam, plus 13 years in prison.

By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 30, 2007

Peter J. Porcelli, who made a fortune with direct mail and telemarketing and took his Tampa Bay Smokers fast-pitch softball team to two world championships, was sentenced to 13 years in prison Monday for his part in a credit card scam that victimized tens of thousands of credit-poor consumers nationwide.

Porcelli, 55, of Oldsmar was also ordered by a federal judge in East St. Louis, Ill., to pay restitution of $11,886,317.

"Obviously, we are pleased with the sentence," said Randy Massey, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Porcelli. "We hope it sends a message that this type of fraud perpetrated on our citizens will not be tolerated."

The government sought a sentence of at least 15 years, 8 months, but Porcelli was given leniency for his cooperation with a federal grand jury investigation into his lending operation in the Tampa Bay area and for his testimony against executives who ran part of the credit card fraud in Utah and Nevada.

Porcelli was indicted in March on conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering charges in connection with the telemarketing operation, which preyed on 165,141 consumers nationwide and took in almost $12-million in illegal profits.

Headquartered in Largo, the operation used teams of cold-callers in boiler rooms in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and India. Telemarketers offered MasterCards and other services for $159 to $499, but victims ended up with a worthless debit card backed with a phony magnetic strip.

The Federal Trade Commission shut down the credit card call centers in 2004, saying Porcelli's practices "amounted to little more than thievery."

Investigators are now looking at another possible credit scam that targeted down-on-their-luck consumers.

U.S. postal inspectors and the Florida Department of Financial Services are investigating a nonprofit group called Safe Harbour Foundation and a mortgage company called Silverstone Lending that Porcelli operated out of the same Clearwater office. The nonprofit sought out desperate homeowners facing foreclosure and referred them to Silverstone for high-risk, short-term loans that appear to violate state laws.

Two weeks ago, a group of homeowners who say they were victimized by the predatory lending operation filed a $40-million federal lawsuit against Porcelli, his companies and associates, claiming they were duped by the nonprofit's misrepresentations into signing for bailout loans with illegal fees and interest rates as high as 500 percent.

Kathy Visceglie, a Pasco County woman who is the organizer of the homeowners group, said Monday that she was cheered by the stiff sentence handed Porcelli but unhappy that he gets to spend the holidays at home before reporting to prison.

Because Porcelli is recuperating from shoulder surgery, the judge said he could complete his rehabilitation and begin his sentence after 60 days.

"Mr. Porcelli didn't have that kind of charity for the people whose homes he was taking last year," said Visceglie. "The holidays for those who lost their homes were ruined."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.