Government investigators probably will need another six weeks to pin down how many people lost money to Richard S. Piccoli in an alleged Ponzi scheme, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday.
"We've sent questionnaires to about 900 people so far, trying to determine who lost money and how much they lost," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gretchen L. Wylegala said. "We're still trying to calculate a figure for the total amount that victims lost."
Wylegala commented after Piccoli, 82, of Amherst, made a brief court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.
McCarthy directed Piccoli, who is free without posting bail, to return to court April 23 for pretrial proceedings.
Piccoli was arrested Jan. 8 on a felony mail fraud charge. Authorities allege that his company -- Gen-See Capital Corp. of Williamsville -- was a Ponzi scheme that used money from new investors to pay off earlier investors.
Investigators say they believe Gen-See took in at least $17 million from investors over a five-year period, but the amount that investors lost because of criminal activity has not yet been determined, Wylegala told McCarthy.
A potential plea deal has been discussed with Piccoli's attorneys, "but we can't talk in specifics until we know how much money was lost," Wylegala said.
Agents from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service criminal division are working on the case with Wylegala's office and the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.
Gen-See investors who lost money but have not received a questionnaire from the government should call a special hotline number, (716) 853-5344, Wylegala said.
Agents said many of Gen-See's investors were priests or people affiliated with Catholic churches throughout Western New York. Gen-See's operations were shut down and its assets frozen after Piccoli's arrest.