Peninger sentenced to 20 years

M. Derrick Peninger was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme that authorities said consumed $7 million from more than 40 clients.

A federal prison near Raleigh just added another Lowcountry name to its who's-who list of shackled swindlers.

A judge on Friday sentenced convicted Ponzi scheme operator M. Derrick Peninger to 20 years in the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, the maximum allowed by law in his case. That prison also houses former Charleston Southern University economist Al Parish and disgraced Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff.

Parish, sentenced two years ago, played into Peninger's three-hour hearing Friday.

Peninger's attorney, Thomas Withers, argued that Parish squandered 10 times more money in his investment fraud and received a 24-year sentence. To give Peninger nearly as much time "stands justice on its head," Withers said.

U.S. District Judge P. Michael Duffy disagreed, saying Parish accepted responsibility for his actions.

Duffy pointed out that Peninger, 51, instead lied by impersonating a 29-year-old woman, telling investors he owned land in Kansas that contained natural gas and claiming not to be president of the company Daniel Island Builders, for which he served as the only registered agent.

On top of that, Peninger failed to appear at his original sentencing hearing in April. That touched off a 10-day hunt for him before police dogs tracked him to a Daniel Island business park.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart said in court that Peninger's car broke down as he tried to flee the state and that the search wasted resources, brought further anxiety to victims in the case and violated Duffy's trust.

The judge in October released Peninger under home monitoring so he could care for his 73-year-old mother and his stepfather, who suffers from dementia. Duffy said Friday that Peninger's parents, his attorney and his children have reason to feel betrayed by his actions.

"You didn't betray me, but you did disrespect this court," Duffy added.

Authorities estimate that Peninger's Ponzi scheme consumed $7 million from more than 40 clients before collapsing. In October, a jury found him guilty of eight counts of mail fraud and one count of lying to an FBI agent.

"Peninger was not very discerning with his victims," Duffy said. "He victimized young and old, people who entrusted him with their life savings. He victimized the healthy and those who were ill. And it didn't seem to make any difference to him."

A few of those people spoke Friday.

Tearfully reading a letter, Bonita May described spending 10 years of her childhood in foster care, working until age 62 and then, with her husband, asking Peninger "not to take risks but to keep safe what we had saved for years."

The Mays were delivering food to senior citizens, as volunteers, the day they found out that Peninger had lost their retirement money, she said. She asked Duffy not to pity him.

"He deserves to spend every day of the maximum sentence away from society," May said.

Another investor and disabled veteran, Mike Weatherford, entrusted his inheritance with Peninger and now lives with his son. A few months ago they received an eviction notice.

"I live in constant fear and anxiety," Weatherford said.

An airline pilot who quit his job to work for Peninger flew in from Dubai, the only place where he could find work immediately, to attend the original sentencing in April. Duffy said the pilot could not attend Friday's hearing but had submitted a letter, as had a handful of other victims.

The judge said Peninger likely would return to the same deceitful pattern if released early. His sentence excludes the possibility of probation and requires that Peninger return about $5.2 million in restitution by making $300 monthly payments for any balance remaining upon his release.

Dressed in Charleston County Detention Center striped jumpsuit, Peninger chose not to speak during the hearing. His attorney, Withers, addressed the court for him, apologizing for the April stunt and pointing out that Peninger's mother will never see him again outside a prison.

"The life Derrick knew is over," Withers said.

No witnesses spoke on Peninger's behalf.