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February 27, 2010

Diet pill fraud nets 20-year below-guideline federal sentence (and ads for diet pills)

This federal sentencing story out of Florida, which is headlined "Diet pill creator sentenced to 20 years for Lipoban’s fraudulent claims: Boca Raton man bilked more than 130,000 customers, feds say," caught my eye for various reasons. Here are the interesting details:

Lipoban was advertised as a miracle drug that absorbed fat, allowing people to shed weight without changing their diets. The claim was a lie, but the pills did absorb something — money from people's wallets. The Boca Raton man behind the ads spent the better part of three decades making similar weight-loss claims, raking in enough money to buy a posh Virgin Islands hideaway.

Frank Sarcona's years of amazing diet promises came to an end Friday as he was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for bilking more than 130,000 Lipoban customers out of at least $10 million.

A federal jury in West Palm Beach convicted Sarcona in October of 29 felony counts related to Lipoban, including money laundering, wire fraud and misbranding of a food. Sarcona, 58, secretly helped form Lipoban in 2000 just months after cutting a deal with the Federal Trade Commission over the misleading claims of his previous weight-loss company, SlimAmerica.

Even before Sarcona started Lipoban, a federal judge described him in a 1999 ruling as having "a long record of assorted fraudulent schemes which have bilked thousands of victims out of millions of dollars in more than a dozen states." With such weight-loss companies as Forever Thin and Amerdream, Sarcona racked up 13 state or federal cease-and-desist orders dating back to 1984.

After federal authorities raided Lipoban in 2004, Sarcona started up yet another diet pill company, Nature's Pharmacy, using an advertising campaign nearly identical to Lipoban's.

Before learning his fate Friday afternoon, Sarcona made one last pitch — a 15-minute plea for leniency to U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra.  He portrayed himself as a crusader for dietary supplements in the face of a federal government that, he said, wants to suppress them.

He acknowledged that he make mistakes in his Lipoban advertisements, but said he could have fixed them if the government had alerted him to the problems. "I don't stay up at night thinking of ways of bilking little old ladies out of $50," Sarcona said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Baron told Marra that Sarcona had spent a lifetime deceiving people, preying on those desperate to lose weight. "If Mr. Sarcona is not given the stiff sentence he deserves, he will repeat this," Baron said.

Sarcona had faced between 27 and 33 years behind bars under federal sentencing guidelines. Marra opted for a shorter sentence, saying that while the guidelines might be appropriate for someone running a Ponzi scheme, they weren't in a case where victims lost only what they paid for the pills, typically $60 per bottle.  But Marra said Sarcona still needed a lengthy prison sentence to reflect on his history of suspect business practices.

It struck me as notable that the federal sentencing judge justified a below-guideline sentence for the defendant because his fraud was not of the Ponzi variety.  I also found interesting that the defendant (effectively?) pitched for sentencing leniency by saying he was a "crusader for dietary supplements."  And finally, as clicking through the to on-line newspaper article shows, it seems that this crusade has worked: there were links to at least three diet pills ads on the webpage with this article.

February 27, 2010 at 11:37 AM | Permalink


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Outside of gastric surgery and external limits (shortage of food, someone takes food away), I am not aware of any weight loss method that works, long term. So mainstream commercial programs, advertised by celebrities on TV, are no more, no less deceptive or puffery than this criminalized activity. Should the owners and celebrities in advertised weight loss programs suffer the same investigations and consequences?

The defendant is a bit cheeky, claiming that notice from the government would have had him correct his advertising. He had a dozen cease and desist orders over 25 years.

This brings up a philosophical question. Causing small damage to large numbers of people is that as dangerous as causing large damage to a small number of people. I would count the money. He collected $10 million. The value of life is around $6 million. Past that amount of damage, one has assassinated a constructive economic person. One should get the death penalty. The penalty should be automatic, to avoid pro-slick salesman bias in judges (quite in evidence here).

Such a scheme would draw in middle class people and make the death penalty less a minority remedy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 27, 2010 3:14:35 PM

I'm sorry, so long as the product isn't actually harmful I say let him sell the stuff. If people can't see through such claims that's their problem.

Other issues might still be in play, such as an inability to stop recurring payments, but just because the stuff doesn't work and has no science to back up the claim is no reason to convict someone.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 27, 2010 6:57:07 PM

So now I suppose they will get after the makers and marketers of Vioxx which is generally considered to have caused 140,000 heart attacks and 50,000 deaths by heart attack over a ten year period, or the makers of hormone replacement therapies whose concoctions not just didn't work they caused 10,000s of excess heart attacks strokes, blood clots and cancers in elderly women? Right? By the way did this guys pill just not work or did it physically harm anyone?

Posted by: Paul | Feb 27, 2010 9:04:21 PM

So being a "crusader for dietary supplements" is the newest grounds for leniency??

Yikes. The guy is a life-long swindler. He could have stopped long, long ago. But the money was too tempting, I guess.

I do, however, give him credit for creativity. Like the now-famous phrase,"wardrobe malfunction," "crusader for dietary supplements" is something I couldn't have thought of in a million years.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 27, 2010 10:58:00 PM

Paul: Don't believe that lying lawyer propaganda about Vioxx, nor their left wing running dogs in medicine. There were no deaths in the clinical trials. If one corrects for the large sample size, the difference with the rate of heart events is no longer statistically significant from that on placebo. These vile, know nothing lawyers intimidated the business man leaders of Merck to take it off the market. A bit later, the FDA asked that it be put back on the market. The lawyer intimidated company official had disrupted the arthritis care of millions of people, some deprived of the sole medicine that had helped them. Because it was established that aspirin prevented the conversion of polyps, these old folks with heart disease had to be taken off their aspirin, used as a blood thinner.

This sad episode shows that even without filing any lawsuits, the lawyer can destroy a productive enterprise. Later, of course, the land pirate swept down, and destroyed $billions in value of the drug company. Those $billions should have gone to search for innovative medication to fill our now very dry pipeline. These lawyers are very rich, now. But the public is not aware of the missing advances in medications.

I would to see the start of the movement to end the criminal cult plundering of our nation by a boycott. All lawyers get on a database. No service or product provider serves them. All government officials outside our military heroes get on the boycott list. The government is coming to ressemble the STASI in his tyranny and oppression.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 28, 2010 1:47:21 AM

Overlawyered is the operative word. The world is so litigious you can't go outside or do anything fun or start anything fun/creative without worry if you'll get slap with a lawsuit like this: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/02/01/libel-suit-over-moldy-apartment-tweet-dropped/

Posted by: Stan Hooper | Feb 28, 2010 2:13:27 AM

The word leniency seems clearly out of place in the context of a 20-year sentence for a 58-year-old, non-violent, non-lethal grifter who apparently never bankrupted even a single buyer of his wares.

Lenient? It’s a virtual life sentence…for the crime of selling people things they should have known not to buy.

Anybody dull or delusional enough to believe a pill would make them thin no matter what or how much they ate was bound to lose their $50 on something else if not on this. Does “a fool and his money” ring any bells?

Yet Bill howls about leniency, mocks Sarcona for outlandish creativity and condemns him in prosecutor-speak as “a life-long swindler” fully deserving of room and board and medical care at taxpayers’ expense for the rest of his life.

More incendiary prosecutor-speak (preying on the desperate…a lifetime of deception, etc.) from the prosecutor in the case who fretted that if Sarcona didn’t get a “stiff” sentence (longer, apparently, than 20 years) he would repeat his crimes…perhaps while dragging his oxygen tank behind his walker.

Can’t we just face it? These mind-numbingly arbitrary sentences seem to exist for only one practical purpose: to provide a baseline and impetus for those born with a dominant vindictiveness gene to cry “leniency.”

Posted by: John K | Feb 28, 2010 1:17:12 PM

Weight loss scams are similar to sex enchancement by the pill scams. The later are regulated by the government and the former are usually not.

Was it a regulated item? Regulated as in Food or Drug?

If this guy goes down then it is open season on Lipitor and all of those other drugs and people who sell them. Take for example the Cialis ad where if you take the pill you end up in the back yard in a side by side bath tub with some not so attractive opposite sex person in the next door tub.

The arguments made by the government against this snake oil guy can be made against all of the big drug companies. Then we can get into religion. And charities. How many people give money to religious theives on Sunday morning hoping for salvation instead of weight loss? Millions. So go after them all or dont go after any of them. Life is a paramutual game. People acquire money and others get it from them. More money goes to the race track on Mothers Day (when the checks come in). That seems bad but society might be better off for the sharing of the wealth. Chumps need to be cleaned.

The downside of this stupid prosecution is that society now has to pay for this guy's room and board.

In looking at this offense though, my point is that if snake oil is not regulated by the government then the seller can sell any snake oil he wishes. Caveat emptor. No crime here. Otherwise there are a lot of people exposed to criminal offenses-- especially that couple on the Cialis commercial not getting to have sex in those side by side bath tubs. How could they? One can not even imagine. So go after the drug companies which are presumably or ostensibly "regulated". They are taking Billions.

Posted by: mpb | Feb 28, 2010 2:11:23 PM

John K --

When the guidelines minimum is 27 years, and the defendant gets 20, yes, that is leniency.

The guy makes millions being a crook, preying on people's stupidity and weakness. He does it for many years, is repeatedly told to stop, but doesn't stop.

Yet to you, HE is the victim and the rest of us are vindictive.

At any time, he could have gotten an honest job like the overwhelming majority of the population. Instead he wanted to sell junk to the gullible to make himself fat-cat rich. That is theft by another name.

This guy is no victim. You seem incapable of recognizing greed for what it is. Why?

P.S. Were you born with a dominant excuse-making gene so you can cry "persecution?"

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 28, 2010 4:21:28 PM


The guidelines strike me as a period-piece aberration, not a font of wisdom or path to fair-minded justice.

They were rationalized as a means to standardize punishments but appear to have been concocted primarily to "get tough" and cut judges out of the loop.

Never mind the questionable (absurd?) notion complex crimes, diverse perps and a vast array of mitigating factors could ever be made to fit justly in the neat little boxes the commission fashioned.

Maybe this helps explain why a recitation of guideline protocols doesn't end for me the question of whether Sarcona's 20-year sentence was lenient.

I don't see Sarcona as a victim, but neither is he Al Capone. Despite your best demonization efforts, he still looks like a petty thief ($50 per gullible victim).

In fact, it’s tempting to argue Sarcona might even have taught some of these folks a fairly cheap lesson they apparently never learned on their own: the "if it looks too good to be true..." lesson.

Much of the rest of your response is devoted to stuffing more straw in the straw man.

Finally, mine isn't an excuse-making gene; It's a punishment-should-fit-the-crime gene... crimes as they exist, not as they're characterized in hyperbolic rants.

Posted by: John K | Mar 1, 2010 11:35:26 AM

John K --

A "petty thief" doesn't rake in enough dough to buy, as the article describes it, "a posh Virgin Islands hideaway."

He was a swindler for decades, and he had a ton of notice to stop, but he kept right on. Law is for suckers, I guess. Kinda like honesty.

The guidelines were, and are, something more than a "period piece." They were mandatory of 18 years, and even now are mostly followed by judges who have no need to.

What is actually a "period piece" is the 60's-70's medical model of criminal law and punishment. In some ways, you're more of an anachronism than I am.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 1, 2010 7:42:22 PM

bill all that means is he was a "good" petty thief!

like the others i think if his useless item was a crime. then so is 90% of EVERYTHING we see advertised on TV. Where are their prosecutions.

Posted by: rodsmith3510 | Mar 1, 2010 10:19:02 PM

rodsmith3510 --

"bill all that means is he was a 'good' petty thief!"

A good thief should get a good sentence!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 2, 2010 1:45:11 AM

here it though they did! Don't most become politicians?

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The guidelines were, and are, something more than a "period piece." They were mandatory of 18 years, and even now are mostly followed by judges who have no need to.

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