Gaston and Teresita Cantens Charged With Running $135 Million Ponzi Scheme That Targeted Elderly Cuban-Americans

Prominent Miami businessman Gaston E. Cantens and his wife Teresita have been charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission for running a $135 million ponzi scheme that defrauded elderly Cuban-Americans. Gaston Cantens served as an advisory board member for Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, and the two are parents of former state Rep. Gaston I. Cantens.

"The Cantens used their prominent standing in a close-knit Cuban-American community to ruthlessly exploit vulnerable elderly investors who trusted them with their life savings," Eric I. Bustillo, director of the SEC's Miami regional pffice, said in a released statement. "They portrayed themselves as a pious couple closely involved with educational and religious organizations, while in reality they were living lavishly off money from defrauded investors."

Through their development company, Royal West Properties, the Cantens sold promissory notes that financed the purchase of properties. They claimed the investments were safe and would bring in returns of 9 to 16 percent annually. However, when property owners defaulted on their mortgages, the Cantens, who were not authorized to sell such securities by the SEC, began using money from new investors to pay off old ones in a classic Ponzi scheme.

The couple also used $20 million to pay themselves high salaries and finance other business ventures while diverting some money to their children and grandchildren.

Taking a page right out of the Bernie Madoff playbook, the Cantens created the impression it was a privilege to invest with them by claiming that Jesuit priests and other religious leaders had trusted their money with them. Victims were targeted at social and religious gatherings, and some were met through connections from Belen Jesuit.

The couple also solicited investors in national television commercials broadcast on Spanish-language networks.

The couple's son, Gaston I. Cantens, served in the state House from 1998 to 2006 as a Republican representing District 114 and lost a bid to become speaker of the House in 2004. He was a former director of the Dade County Bar Association and the Cuban-American Bar Association. He currently is a vice president at Florida Crystals Corporation.

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Kyle Munzenrieder