In a dramatic about-face, accused Montecito con artist David Prenatt disavowed a plea deal he struck with prosecutors just two weeks earlier, arguing last week in Judge Jean Dandona’s courtroom that he’d been denied “effective assistance of counsel.” In so doing, Prenatt — charged with bilking $13 million from investors by operating a classic Ponzi scheme — has effectively fired his attorney Robert Sanger and is now seeking representation from the Public Defender’s office. No details were provided in court as to how Prenatt was given ineffective legal advice, and despite the urging by prosecuting attorney Brian Cota, Dandona didn’t ask for any.
The announcement came last Thursday, the same day Prenatt was scheduled to be sentenced to 10 years behind bars. Cota objected that it was Prenatt who initiated the deal, that the better part of a court day was spent ensuring no coercion was involved, and that Prenatt understood the terms of the deal. The burden of proof to demonstrate ineffective legal counsel, Cota noted after the hearing, is extremely high, and the chances of Prenatt demonstrating it, he added, are remote.
Several of Prenatt’s victims had showed up not merely to urge the judge to throw the book at Prenatt — a one-time high roller and big-time donor in philanthropic circles — but to confront Prenatt himself. “He’s a coward,” said one in the hallway afterward. Prenatt had claimed in his defense that he’d been wiped out by the recession like many others and that no malfeasance was involved. Documents produced by court examiners and the IRS, however, revealed he’d been living exceedingly large on investors’ cash, using one investor’s funds to make grandiose interest payments to other investors.
“We waited five years to speak,” lamented investor Sue Cook. Instead, Cook and other victims waited in the hallway to stare at Prenatt as he was escorted out in chains by a bailiff. If he saw them, he gave no sign. Dandona stressed she’d give Prenatt just two weeks to make his case but that she intended to allow no more delays in sentencing.