RALEIGH, N.C. | A former Hammond Baptist Church deacon was sentenced Thursday to 22 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $16.5 million in restitution after being convicted in federal court of defrauding hundreds of investors.
Despite his conviction and, in some cases, the loss of their money, a number of people wrote letters on Thomas L. Kimmel's behalf in effort to have his sentence lowered.
Kimmel was convicted in June of mail fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.
"I still believe in Tom," said Jean Smith, a St. John business owner when contacted Friday about the letter she wrote on Kimmel's behalf.
Smith reaffirmed statements she made in her letter that stated that she believed "Tom made serious mistakes with his connection to Sure Line Corp. However, I do not believe he ever intentionally defrauded either me or any of the other investors."
Smith had a $300,000 note with the Sure Line Acceptance Corp., the company that Kimmel was raising money for during various visits to churches throughout the country.
Others writing letters on Kimmel's behalf were Toby Weaver, dean of students at West Coast Baptist College, who worked with Kimmel for more than 10 years at the First Baptist Church in Hammond and Thomas Vogel, Hammond Baptist Schools superintendent, who said Kimmel spoke to him about the investment several years ago.
Vogel wrote he rejected the investment as too risky, but said Kimmel was "forthright and honest about the fact that it was not a guaranteed return and there were no safeguards to keep me from losing all of my investment."
According to a sentencing memorandum submitted by U.S. Attorney's Thomas G. Walker office and signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney David A. Bragdon, however, Kimmel only cared about getting his 10 percent commission.
"He didn't care about the success of the company. He didn't care about the safety of the investment. He didn't care about the friends and family he lured to invest their life's savings," Bragdon wrote.
According to the government, the effect of the crime on about 326 victims "has been devastating."
Prosecutors said Raymond and Val Jean Hucko intended to live off of the interest from their established retirement fund before trusting Kimmel to invest their entire 401(k) with the company. The once-retired couple is now trying to find work in Arizona, according to the government.
Prosecutors contended Kimmel saw the corporation "as a risky investment likely to fail, but he capitalized on the naivety of others."
According to the government, between 2006 and 2011, the corporation raised more than $15 million from investors around the country. The corporation claimed it was the financing wing of a group of three used car dealerships in North Carolina.
According to the indictment, investors were promised their investment was backed by collateral - that for every dollar invested there was a dollar or more of collateral that existed to protect that investment.
"These promises were false," according to the indictment. Instead, it contended the company used new money from investors primarily to repay past investors' principal and interest and pay commission of the company's three officers. In this respect, the indictment said the corporation was a Ponzi scheme where investors were paid their interest from new investor money and no business profits.
According to prosecutors, on Nov. 7, 2007, David Gibbs, the president of the Christian Law Association sent Kimmel a letter telling him and Jack Schaap, then-pastor of the First Baptist Church in Hammond, that "After careful review of the collateralized note program, I feel I must warn you of the possible liability to both First Baptist Church and to Mr. Kimmel himself for selling unlicensed securities."
Schaap is serving 12 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2012 to having sexual relations with a teenage church member.
On Feb. 13, 2008, Gibbs wrote Kimmel after receiving calls from prospective investors who said Kimmel told them Gibbs endorsed the corporation's program.
"After careful review of the collateralized note program, during phone conversations with both you and Dr. Schaap in November 2007, I clearly counseled you NOT to sell these unlicensed non-secure investments across state lines. I warned you of the possible liability that you could incur for selling unlicensed securities across state lines to non-sophisticated investors when you have no appropriate license to do so.
"In clear conscience, I cannot and will not recommend your high-risk, unsecured investments to a church or an individual. These are non-sophisticated investors who are trusting your representations that their investments are secure. That is simply not the case," Gibbs wrote.
On June 24, 2008, Kimmel was told the corporation had lost money the entire first half of that year, but prosecutors said despite this information and Gibbs warnings Kimmel continued to sell investments to hundreds of people.
According to Bragdon, Kimmel sold investments in Sure Line Acceptance Corp. in churches across the country.
"A pastor would introduce him, and he would take the pulpit. He would then give what was supposed to be independent financial advice about honoring God with your money and getting out of debt," prosecutors wrote. "In this position of authority and respect, Kimmel preached that according to the Bible, God wants people to invest."