Gainesville insurance agent pleads guilty to theft, gets prison


Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 4:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 4:57 p.m.

A longtime Gainesville insurance agent will serve prison time after he pleaded guilty Wednesday to grand theft for receiving more than $1 million in loan money intended for insurance premiums on businesses he had created.

James Sirmans Jr., 59, pleaded guilty as charged, and Circuit Judge Stan Morris sentenced him to approximately 21 months in prison followed by 10 years of probation.

Sirmans also must pay $1,025,057 in restitution -- the amount still owed to Premium Assignment Corp., a SunTrust company that had made the loans.

Sirmans apologized in court. Watched by his three sons, he told Morris he should have filed for bankruptcy but acted out of pride.

Sirmans, who was charged last year with grand theft, had become addicted to serving as his family and friends' provider, his attorney told Morris.

When he ran into financial trouble, he applied for and received more than $1 million in loan money from 2008 until early 2009 meant for premiums on insurance policies for approximately 20 businesses he had created. Some of those businesses didn't exist.

He was trying to pay the money back when he no longer was able to and the theft was uncovered, attorneys said during a sentencing hearing in the case.

"He had deluded himself into really believing he would be the only one who would know," defense attorney Michael Sawyer said.

Sirmans received about $1.8 million in loans and already has repaid about $700,000, Assistant State Attorney Marc Peterson said.

Morris, at first, declined to accept Sirmans' plea as crafted by the prosecution and the defense because it did not include prison time. Under the terms of that agreement, Sirmans instead would have served two years of house arrest. Other conditions involving probation time and restitution were the same.

Morris agreed Sirmans did not deserve a maximum 30-year prison sentence. Sirmans was no Bernie Madoff, the financier convicted last year of a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme that affected thousands of investors, Morris said. But, the judge concluded, "I'm rejecting your plea because I don't think it's just."

Morris listened to how Sirmans spent thousands of dollars buying belongings, paying for housing and assisting people in his life even though his business ventures were running into trouble.

Problems worsened with the catastrophic 2004 hurricane season followed by poor economic times late in the decade.

"You had a great deal of pride in taking care of these people, but it was with someone else's money," Morris said. "There is an impact. There is a multiple effect. Somewhere down the line, someone is eating this."

Morris called for a recess after his announcement. In the end, Sirmans moved forward with his plea, knowing his sentence would involve some amount of prison time.

The judge's order included the least amount of prison time allowed under sentencing guidelines. Sirmans also will receive credit for 253 days already served in jail since his arrest.

Sirmans had received loans from Premium Assignment to cover insurance premiums on companies he had started, attorneys said.

The practice is not uncommon in the industry, Sawyer said.

And some of Sirmans' businesses for which he received loans were legitimate, attorneys said.

But then Sirmans began seeking loans on companies he recently had incorporated just to borrow the money. Loan amounts requested were higher than the premiums. In some cases, he never wrote insurance polices for the businesses although the loans supposedly were meant to cover premiums.

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