MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge sentenced fallen auto mogul Denny Hecker on Friday to a maximum 10 years in prison for fraud, saying he deserved no less due to his pattern of lying and concealing assets in the implosion of his empire.
U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen denied a defense request for eight years, saying Hecker told the truth only when backed into a corner.
“It all adds up to, you don’t get a break,” Ericksen said.
Hecker, looking thin and speaking in a weak voice, asked for leniency. He cried as he spoke about his children and apologized for his actions. He said his purchase of a failing rental car business set in motion a chain of events that drove him to commit fraud to fix his problems.
“I did it because my ego was so big,” Hecker said. “I thought I could conquer anything.”
He added that in recent years, he has been overwhelmed by his bankruptcy, a public divorce and the government’s investigation.
“I didn’t intentionally lie to anybody,” he said. “It seems like everywhere I turn, I’m made to look like this giant villain . My ego is long gone.”
Ericksen said Hecker brought his problems on himself. Besides the 10-year prison term, Ericksen ordered Hecker to pay more than $31 million in restitution to victims. He’ll also be on supervised release for three years.
Hecker pleaded to be released to spend just 24 hours with his kids. Ericksen said: “It pains me to not be able to give your children that opportunity.”
“I can’t let you out,” she said. “I just can’t.”
Ericksen said she would recommend that Hecker serve his sentence in or near Minnesota and that he be admitted to a drug and alcohol treatment program.
Hecker acknowledged in court that he has a problem with drinking and prescription drugs.
Hecker’s attorney, William Mauzy, said admission to a treatment program would shave about a year off Hecker’s sentence. If that happens, and with credit for time served and good behavior, Hecker could be out in seven years, Mauzy estimated.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Engisch said after the hearing that the sentence was reasonable. She told Ericksen that Hecker committed multiple acts of fraud over several years.
“The defendant, throughout this case, has behaved as though the rules of the court and the bankruptcy court do not apply,” Engisch said.
Mauzy said Hecker was an honest, hard-working businessman until one bad business decision led him to alter documents out of desperation.
“If this were a NASCAR race you would have only seen the crashes, not the rest of the race,” Mauzy said in court.
Hecker, 58, of Medina, pleaded guilty last September to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of bankruptcy fraud. Prosecutors said he cheated Chrysler Financial and other lenders out of tens of millions of dollars so he could support a high-flying lifestyle.
Hecker has been in custody since October when a judge ordered him arrested after he failed to disclose how he spent insurance money.
Hecker got his start selling used cars in Minneapolis decades ago and eventually became one of Minnesota’s largest auto dealers. In 2008, he owned 26 dealerships as well as leasing and fleet businesses, a mortgage brokerage business, Advantage Rent A Car, and multiple real estate and restaurant holdings.
He was a ubiquitous presence in Minnesota — his face appearing on Twin Cities buses and in advertisements as the pitchman for his dealerships. He also lived the high life, with a 52-foot yacht and private jet, fancy cars and multimillion-dollar homes. In 2004, he and other investors unsuccessfully tried to buy the Minnesota Vikings.
But his empire started crumbling in late 2008, when he lost some credit lines and had to close or sell his dealerships. Then everything came tumbling down.
He crashed his Range Rover in December 2008 while on heavy prescription drugs, and later pleaded guilty to careless driving. Some lenders sued him and won default judgments — one to the tune of $477 million. By June 2009 he filed for bankruptcy, claiming $787 million in debt and $18.5 million in assets. A contentious divorce from his fourth wife was played out like a soap opera, with Hecker liquidating his 401(k) account and getting tossed in jail by an angry judge.
While Hecker owed millions, he continued to spend money. His belongings from luxury watches to cars and boats were auctioned off, and he created a fake company to try to buy some of items back. Benefactors came forward with cash. And his ex-father-in-law committed suicide a week after being accused of trying to help Hecker hide money.
The twists and turns of Hecker’s courtroom battles were often front-page news, reflecting the public’s fascination with him, said Keith Moyer, a former Star Tribune publisher who is now a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s journalism school.
“He was sort of the poster boy for the economic boom … but then he also kind of turned into a poster boy for the crash,” Moyer said. “He was on top of the world, and then he wasn’t.”
Kelly Hecker, one of Hecker’s adult daughters, said the case has affected the whole family.
“I can’t go somewhere and say my last name and someone not say, ‘Oh, is that the evil Hecker?’ So that’s tough,” she said, adding the case is unfortunate for her dad’s younger children, ages 16 and 10.
“He’s really sorry,” she said. “I hope that he finds peace.”
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)