Smooth-talking scammer gets six years, ordered to pay $575,000 restitution

By Ethan Andrews | Mar 02, 2018
Source: Fort Lee Police Department Robert Howarth pictured in 2016 at the time of his arrest in Fort Lee, N.J., on warrants for felony theft and fraud charges in Waldo and York counties.

Belfast — A confidence man who took more than a half-million dollars from individuals who believed they were investing in a designer clothing resale business has been sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the victims.

Robert Howarth, 64, went by the aliases Robert Chiofalo, Robert Kim Lee and Robert Sachs. From 2009 to 2012, Howarth worked his way into the good graces of 17 people in Waldo County and two in York County, convincing them to put up money on promises of big returns in amounts totaling from $3,000 to $200,000.

Letters from his victims to the court describe a charming and warm-mannered man who flawlessly played the part of the well-connected businessman and always appeared to be looking out for the best interests of his marks.

When Howarth failed to make good on the promised returns, he bought time and trust with extravagant gifts. He claimed that the money was tied up or encouraged his victims to "roll over" the money for a larger payday later. Many came to wonder if he was running a Ponzi scheme, using "investments" from new victims to pay off the early investors, as payments always came in amounts that were smaller and later-coming than promised.

According to court documents, Howarth served four years in prison in Massachusetts on multiple convictions, including more than 30 for larceny, forgery and other charges.

In a 2015 statement, Maine Office of Securities said Howarth turned up in Belfast in 2009 claiming to be a successful businessman who made money from selling designer clothing overseas:

“He used various tactics to convince investors that he was operating a legitimate business venture. However, his investment appears to have been a scam resulting in alleged investor losses in excess of $500,000."

In a letter to the court, a Searsport couple described how Howarth and his wife Marie, who were renting a Main Street property from them, convinced them to put up $23,000 to buy "left-over" cashmere sweaters that would be shipped to California and sold for twice or three times the cost.

The Chiofolos, as Howarth and his wife claimed to be, wined and dined their victims, and with plausible delays and promises of bigger paydays, "Bob" convinced them to put down a total of $76,250 that year.

When they finally grew suspicious and demanded payment, money "began to dribble in." The couple got $25,300 back, but began to wonder if it was at the expense of other investors.

A Searsport hairdresser, who gave Howarth $3,000 to invest on promises of big returns that she and her husband hoped to put toward buying a house, blamed Howarth for financial hardship that led to her divorce. In a letter to the court, she warned that if Howarth was not watched "24/7, he will do what he does best, make phone calls," in an attempt to collect money from unwitting victims.

Howarth was indicted in Waldo County in May 2015 on charges of theft by deception and securities fraud, but disappeared before the indictments went down. He faced identical charges in York County.

A year later, he was picked up at a traffic stop in Fort Lee, N.J., where Maine authorities allege he had been living at a synagogue "pursuant to a long con on a rabbi and his wife."

Howarth was arrested on a warrant out of Maine and extradited back to the state. He was incarcerated at York County Jail with bail set at $100,000 and a provision that the money could not be posted by a third-party. That December Howarth signed an affidavit stating that he had no income or assets, but court documents suggest he continued to pose as a wealthy man on the inside.

From York County Jail, Howarth allegedly made phone calls promising "extreme financial rewards" to individuals who would put money his his bank account. After catching wind that he was arranging for someone to post his bail, the state unsuccessfully appealed to add an extra administrative step to his release.

"Either Howarth has no assets, as he has indicated in his affidavit, or he has assets and lied in his affidavit. If he has no assets, then the court will unwittingly be creating a new victim if the money is posted by a third party and Howarth flees the jurisdiction."

A fellow inmate blew the whistle after loaning $100 to Howarth, who claimed to be a retired textile mogul with a 400-acre vineyard in Italy, then learning about his history of scamming people.

"Bob is a smooth talker," he wrote. "He knows enough about everything to make himself intriguing."

Howarth suffered from a number of medical conditions, including chronic kidney disease, coronary artery disease, hypertension, uncontrolled diabetes with a history of a toe amputation, fluid in his lungs and gout.

While behind bars, he generated a large medical file and was hospitalized several times. His medical activity was frequent enough that Waldo County's corrections administrator contacted the court to ask for relief from the demands of guarding Howarth, who was then at Two Bridges Regional Jail, during his repeated hospitalizations.

Howarth's court-appointed attorney Jeremy Pratt attempted to lessen the 64-year-old's sentence on grounds that his age and extensive medical problems would make serving time in prison unreasonably difficult, and that his age combined with a lower life expectancy from his conditions would limit the time during which Howarth could earn money to pay restitution.

Assistant Attorney General Paul Rucha responded that Howarth was "yet again attempting to manipulate others, specifically this court," by creating "a persona of a Robert Howarth who is incredibly disabled and should be pitied."

Rucha noted that Howarth's medical problems were consistent with untreated type 2 diabetes, from which he had suffered for the previous 15 years, and which may have been aggravated by "living under aliases, and perpetrating fraud while living a lavish lifestyle."

"Whereas these conditions did not inhibit his relentless, almost compulsive exploitation of those he encountered outside the prison, and (do) not seem to be inhibiting him from attempting to exploit those within the correctional system," Rucha wrote, "refraining from giving Howarth the sentence he deserves will serve neither mercy nor justice and will only lead to more victims."

On Feb. 26, Howarth pled guilty to both counts and did not stand trial. He was sentenced to serve six years of a 10-year sentence and pay restitution totaling $575,000 to various victims.

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