Fraud case involving Samoan travel agent includes many pleas for leniency

A Samoan travel agent accused of defrauding a high school marching band in the U.S. of more than $300,000 is undergoing treatment for his gambling addiction, according to defense attorneys in their sentencing statement, which also includes pleas of leniency for the defendant, who is described as an honest and friendly man.

 

Calliope Rocky Saaga, aka "Ope", of Utah, was charged under a 15-count indictment at the federal court in Springfield, Missouri for defrauding Willard High School marching band by stealing $360,000 and using the money for gambling, trips to neighboring Samoa and one wire transfer of $100,000 to a bank in Samoa.

 

He pled guilty last October to one count of wire fraud, under a plea agreement with prosecutors, and court records shows that he will be sentenced Mar. 11 this year.

 

According to the agreement, wire fraud — a felony — is punishable by not more than 20 years imprisonment, a fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release. He must also pay in full any restitution ordered by the court.

 

Saaga had also pled guilty under a plea agreement for an identical charge at the federal court in Fort Smith, Arkansas for defrauding $272,500 from the Southside High School marching band in that state. He will be sentenced Mar. 25 in this case.

 

In both cases, parents and students fundraised for their dream trip to Hawai’i in 2012 but none of the marching bands ever made the trip due to the defendant’s criminal action, according to court documents.

 

In the Missouri case, assistant federal public defender David R. Mercer acknowledged that Saaga’s offense is “serious and far-reaching” and his “crime has impacted hundreds of people financially and emotionally, many of whom are very young.”

 

“It is also true, however, that the circumstances of this offense are unusual. This is not a scenario where Mr. Saaga coolly and rationally decided to defraud the victims in this case for selfish gain,” he said, and pointed to 25 letters of support from people, who sought leniency in the court’s sentencing.

 

Based on the letters, “it is clear that for decades Mr. Saaga has been known by many to be a man of integrity, hard work, strong moral fiber, and one who demonstrated a servant’s heart to his family and many young people,” the defense said in the sentencing memo.

 

Additionally, this is Saaga’s first contact with the criminal justice system in his 40 years of life, they said.

 

These letters and his lack of any criminal history beg the following question — “what were the circumstances of this offense that brought about his criminal actions?” the memo states, and cited the federal probation sentencing report which “concludes that ‘defendant had a severe gambling addiction during the time that his fraud took place’.”

 

A Feb. 18 letter from the Intermountain Specialized Treatment Center in Provo, Utah, has been submitted to the court to verify that the defendant has been undergoing treatment since July last year.

 

“He has primarily been working on his depression and anxiety features and learning healthy coping skills,” the letter states. “Calliope has been addressing empathy and understanding how his actions may have impacted others.”

 

“Calliope has also been addressing his gambling addition. He’s learning about his triggers, high risk situation and coping skills to deal with urges,” it says, adding that the defendant has not disclosed the specific details of his offense but it would be beneficial for him to continue with some treatment after sentencing to address issues relating to his offense.

 

In his sentencing memo, Mercer said the defendant does not blame anyone but himself for this offense. It is, however, a significant characteristic of this offense that Saaga engaged in fraudulent behavior:

 

•            after creating a financial disaster through irresponsible and unwise business decisions (including mishandling other people’s money); and then

 

•            turning to his personal addiction of gambling in a reckless effort to fix this financial mess.

 

“Sadly for the victims in this case, these two human failings of Mr. Saaga proved to be a destructive mix. It is in this context, and not through a cold and malicious heart, that Mr. Saaga perpetrated fraud on the victims,” the defense argued.

 

Several people in Utah, Hawaii and Texas — including officials from a Utah high school— submitted letters of support for the defendant and asked for leniency. Three of the letters were highlighted by the defense team.

 

For example, Faaeteete and Erin Apelu’s letter states that Saaga “has spent the majority of his life serving others. One of his best attributes is that he usually puts others before himself … Over the past twenty years, we have never experienced a time where he put himself before the needs of others.”

 

Ifo Pili, who is Saaga’s Bishop with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Provo, describes the defendant as “a true family man. He is a good husband and father. He loves his family very much and they love him. As long as I’ve known him, his life has revolved around his family. I have witnessed the way in which he cares for them.”

 

“I believe that any type of sentence removing him from his home would be a sentence, not just for him, but for his wife and children,” the letter says. (According to the defense, Saaga is married with six children, two of them over the age of 18).

 

Other letters describe the defendant as an “honest man”, hard working and also remorseful.

 

“Mr. Saaga is a man with a history of being a model citizen, worker, husband, father, church member, and community member. His character is known by many to show selflessness, honesty, remorse, personal responsibility, and honesty,” Mercer argued.

 

SENTENCE AND RESTITUTION

 

Regarding sentencing, Mercer ask the court to “consider a downward variance, in part, on the basis that a long period of incarceration is not needed to achieve the sentencing goals of deterrence and protecting the public.”

 

Based on federal sentencing guidelines, the defendant is looking at a sentence of between 51 to 63 months imprisonment, according the sentencing memo.

 

Mercer didn’t specify any amount of time for imprisonment, but asked the court to “minimize his term of custody in order to maximize his ability to make the victims of this case whole” — by making restitution payments.

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