Nikesh “Nik” Ajay Patel of Florida pled guilty to committing $179 million in investment fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Illinois. (Photo: Orlando Sentinel)

DAYS BEFORE HE was scheduled to be sentenced in a $179 million financial fraud case, Orlando hotel financier Nikesh “Nik” Ajay Patel allegedly tried to make a run for it. Federal agents apprehended him Jan. 6 at a Florida airport preparing to board a flight for South America.

Patel, 34, was scheduled to appear on Jan. 9 in U.S. District Court for sentencing on fraud charges to which he had pleaded guilty in December 2016, according to the office of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois John Lausch in Chicago, which has been prosecuting the case. Patel had been out on bond since his arrest in 2014.

He was stopped, along with an unnamed companion, at Kissimmee Gateway Airport in Kissimmee, Florida, where he was attempting to board a plane for Ecuador.

Patel told FBI agents he had been granted asylum in Ecuador and that a friend had obtained an Indian passport for him two months earlier. The passport’s issuance date was Nov. 1, 2010, and was valid through Oct. 1, 2020. He had paid $40,000 to the man accompanying him to the airport to make the arrangements for the trip.

“Patel committed the offense of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick King wrote in court documents.

Attempts to reach Patel or his attorneys were not immediately successful.

The original charges against Patel stem from his time as chief executive officer of First Farmers Financial LLC in Orlando, Florida, where he financed hotels and restaurants. Patel’s company sold three “fabricated loans” for $20 million to a Tennessee investment firm and 26 fabricated loans to a Milwaukee investment firm, Pennant Management, for $179 million, according to the U.S. Attorney.

“Between November 2012 and September 2014, Patel created and assisted in creating false documents sent to the investment firm in support of these loans,” Lausch’s office said in a statement when Patel entered his guilty plea. “Patel submitted documents to the Milwaukee investment firm that falsely created the appearance that his company had lent money to borrowers in Florida and Georgia – in amounts ranging from $2.5 million to $10 million – and that a portion of the loans were guaranteed by the federal government under a program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  All 26 loans were completely fabricated with no actual borrower, no pre-existing loan, and no government guarantee.”

Patel also pleaded guilty to five counts of wire fraud, and he could face a maximum sentence of 100 years in prison and a fine of $1.25 million for the original charges. First Farmers’ president, Timothy G. Fisher, also was convicted in connection with the fraud.

The federal government has sold many of the assets, including five hotels that Patel bought in 2013 and Patel’s personal belongings including a $4 million waterfront mansion and cars, to regain more than $100 million. The hotels were a DoubleTree near the University of Central Florida, a Sheraton in downtown Orlando, a Crowne Plaza near Disney World, a Crowne Plaza in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, and a Sheraton in Peoria, Illinois.