SANTA ANA, California – An Orange County man – whose company used high-pressure sales tactics to raise more than $9.5 million with bogus claims that the outfit’s solar panels utilized nanotechnology to generate electricity three times more efficiently than traditional solar panels – was sentenced today to 78 months in federal prison.
Michael James Sweaney, 58, of Irvine, the founder, owner and chief financial officer of Nanotech Engineering Inc., was sentenced by United States District Judge Josephine L. Staton. Judge Staton also ordered Sweaney to pay $9,771,052 in restitution.
Sweaney pleaded guilty in April 2021 to one count of mail fraud.
Nanotech, which had facilities in Irvine and Loveland, Colorado, used a team of salespeople to cold-call potential investors and pitch them with bogus claims the company had developed a compact “Nanopanel” with patent-pending nanotechnology that was one-third the cost of similar devices and would soon dominate the solar panel market. But the “Nanopanel” did not exist.
From September 2017 to December 2019, Nanotech and its salesforce not only lied to investors, it also failed to disclose pertinent facts, which included identifying the CFO as “Michael Hatton” to conceal that Sweaney had previously been convicted in Nevada state court of securities fraud.
“While the proceeds of [Sweaney’s] past crime were several orders of magnitude smaller than those in his current offense, this prior conviction does reveal a disturbing trend of an individual who graduated from a small-time con to a major investment scam,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Using the alias “Michael Hatton,” Sweaney personally solicited a potential investor with lies, including that Nanotech did not pay commissions to sales personnel and that the company’s manufacturing equipment was worth $100 million. That potential investor was an undercover FBI agent.
During the scheme, Sweaney instructed his nephew – who was in charge of Nanotech’s Colorado facility – to create a prop to make it appear that there were functioning Nanopanels, to make a video with a hired actor showing the product outperforming a traditional solar panel, and to make it appear the Loveland facility was manufacturing Nanopanels, the court documents state.
In a 2018 email to his nephew, Sweaney wrote, “We need to spend ALOT OF CASH, we need IMMEDIATELY equipment in the warehouse, without it JAIL, and that’s no joke, no equipment and using investment funds EQUALS JAIL, however spending money on equipment WILL SET US FREE.”
Investor funds – which purportedly would be spent on company overhead and the manufacturing of Nanopanels – were used to fund his lavish lifestyle, which included a 46-foot yacht, two Maserati GranTurismo automobiles, a gold Cartier watch and cosmetic surgery. Sweaney has agreed to forfeit the yacht, the cars, the watch and approximately $1.5 million in cash, bank accounts and checks previous seized by investigators.
Sweaney’s nephew – David Wayne Sweaney, 42, of Fort Collins, Colorado, who was listed on documents as Nanotech’s chief executive officer – pleaded guilty in September 2020 to one count of mail fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced on March 11 by Judge Staton, at which time he will face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
David Sweaney assisted in the scheme orchestrated by his uncle in a number of ways, including depositing victims’ checks into Nanotech bank accounts in Colorado, purchasing and installing $300,000 in used solar panel manufacturing equipment, arranging for at least two potential victim-investors to tour Nanotech’s Colorado facility, and creating a video showing a prop Nanopanel outperforming a standard solar panel – an illusion he created by powering the purported Nanopanel with a hidden battery pack.
The FBI investigated this matter.
Special Assistant United States Attorney Ryan G. Adams of the Santa Ana Branch Office prosecuted this case.
The United States Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a civil action against Nanotech and the Sweaneys, and the agency has obtained partial judgements against both David Sweaney and Michael Sweaney.