Former high roller sentenced in tax-fraud case — (The Bradenton Herald)

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The Bradenton Herald

Posted on Sun, Dec. 03, 2006

PEDRO RUZ GUTIERREZ, The Orlando Sentinel

The money flowed in to the tune of at least $17 million.

Former millionaire entrepreneur James T. O’Neal Jr. had grand plans to build a nationwide chain of mega auto malls in the 1990s.

Investors in Central Florida and his native Indiana – including developers, executives, professional golfers, doctors, neighbors and fellow church members – opened their checkbooks and emptied retirement accounts with promises of high returns.

But instead of delivering, O’Neal’s American Public Automotive Group Inc. went bankrupt while O’Neal spent most of the investors’ funds on an extravagant lifestyle. He was indicted on federal fraud charges in 2004 after FBI and IRS agents examined his legal troubles.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge John Antoon II sentenced O’Neal to 3½ years in prison and ordered he pay his victims $8.8 million in restitution. On his birthday, the former Bay Hill and Isleworth resident also heard Antoon reject a request to be released and spend Christmas with his family.

“I’m very disappointed in myself for failing to complete that business venture,” O’Neal told Antoon during the 90-minute hearing.

O’Neal, 61, avoided trial a year ago when he reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to two counts of tax fraud associated with his scheme to bilk the rich and famous. Antoon dismissed another 80 counts, including mail fraud and money laundering, as part of the deal.

“I feel a lot of remorse for those people. A lot of them were my friends; some of them were my family,” O’Neal said.

“I hope that those people will forgive me for my mistakes and my behavior.”

Among his victims are pro golfer Scott Hoch, developer Richard Lee and luxury-home builder Tom Coudriet, who built O’Neal’s 27,000-square-foot Isleworth home in the late 1980s and sank $530,000 into O’Neal’s auto-mall deal.

O’Neal also once worked with one-time friend and partner Arnold Palmer in another failed auto-mall venture that later led to state charges of sales-tax evasion and theft against O’Neal only. In 1994, jurors found O’Neal guilty of two counts and acquitted him on 14 others. He received one year of probation, and a circuit judge withheld adjudication.

Friday’s sentencing was the latest chapter in O’Neal’s fall from the jet-setting lifestyle, luxury cars, properties and leased mansions to which he grew accustomed. Earlier this year, O’Neal was found mentally incompetent for further court hearings and spent about six months at a federal mental-health facility.

A Maitland psychiatrist diagnosed him with a bipolar condition that was complicated by antidepressants, court records show.

Dr. Jeff Danziger testified that the lifelong illness led to some erratic and bizarre behavior through the years, including suicide attempts