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Feds Arrest 3 In Alleged Marin Car Dealership Advertising Scam

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Three former top executives with three Marin car dealerships were taken into federal custody Friday for allegedly stealing millions of dollars in a fake advertising scam.

Federal prosecutors said the alleged scam span from 2010-2016 when the three men -- Amir Bakhtiari, Arlette Casino, and Austin Caba -- worked for Sonnen Motorcars which owned and operated three car dealerships in Marin County -- Sonnen Volkswagen, Audi Marin, and Porsche Marin.

Bakhtiari was arrested in Newport Beach, Caba was arrested in Burlingame and Casino was arrested in Santa Rosa on Friday.

The three were all charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud. Bakhtiari and Caba were additionally charged with conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity.

If convicted, the maximum penalty for each count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud is twenty years' imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

According to the indictment, from at least 2010 to 2016, Bakhtiari orchestrated an embezzlement scheme when he managed the Volkswagen and Audi dealerships.

Bakhtiari allegedly used his role to initiate a scheme wherein Sonnen made payments on fraudulent invoices to fake advertising vendors who then forwarded the majority of the proceeds from Sonnen back to Bakhtiari.

The indictment alleges that Casino, who served as controller of Sonnen from 2013 to 2016, and Caba -- who controlled one of the fake advertising vendors --
conspired with Bakhtiari.

According to the indictment, Bakhtiari caused others to create shell entities with names suggesting that they were in the business of advertising. The shell companies were controlled by friends or Bakhtiari associates.

These entities were Advision Advertisers, Elite Marketing and Advertising, Pacific Blue Advertising, and ARC Sierra Promotional & Incentive Co. (ARC Sierra).

Bakhtiari then allegedly created or caused the creation of fake invoices from each of the fake advertising vendors to Sonnen, purporting to bill Sonnen for advertising work.

Along with the controller, Bakhtiari allegedly approved the payments on these fake invoices from Sonnen's bank accounts in the form of checks written to the fake vendors.

All total, the indictment alleges that from 2010 to 2016, Bakhtiari directed approximately $6.3 million in fraudulent transfers in this manner.

When the money reached the vendor bank accounts, the individuals who controlled these accounts wrote checks back to Bakhtiari for a majority of the funds.

According to the indictment, Bakhtiari and Casino also initiated other fraudulent payments to themselves including bonuses that Bakhtiari falsely claimed were funded by the corporate offices of Volkswagen or Audi.

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