(Reuters) – A British man accused of allegedly defrauding investors of nearly $100 million through a Ponzi-like scheme involving nonexistent luxury wines pleaded not guilty in a U.S. court on Saturday.
Stephen Burton, 58, was extradited to New York from Morocco on Friday to face the charges after he was arrested in 2022 after entering that country using a fake Zimbabwean passport, authorities said.
Federal prosecutors said that Burton, along with a co-defender, ran Bordeaux Cellars, a company they said brokered loans between investors and high-net-worth wine collectors.
Burton pleaded not guilty to the indictment which was filed in 2022 and was ordered detained pending trial, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Burton and co-defendant James Wellesley allegedly solicited $99 million from investors from June 2017 to February 2019, approaching them at places including conferences in the United States and overseas.
The men told lenders that the loans would be backed by wine they stored for wealthy collectors and promised profits through interest payments, prosecutors alleged.
However, these collectors “did not actually exist and Bordeaux Cellars did not maintain custody of the wine purportedly securing the loans,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement on Saturday.
Reuters could not immediately reach attorneys for Burton and Wellesley. Wellesley, also a British citizen, is currently awaiting extradition in the United Kingdom.
If convicted, the defendants could each face up to 20 years in prison for charges of wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)