A Utah businessman who pleaded guilty to defrauding investors in the takeover of a South Carolina coastal getaway that later failed is unhappy with the deal he struck with prosecutors last year, saying this week the justice system is treating him differently than a former corporate partner.
James T. “JT” Bramlette pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud and failure to pay payroll taxes for the Melrose Resort on Daufuskie Island in a decade-old real estate debacle.
Now he is raising concerns about the charges and his lawyer, although he admitted he didn’t know what could be done about it.
“I’m not sure what you’re asking me to do,” U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel said during a May 31 hearing in Charleston, after Bramlette said he was not pleased with the plea deal he accepted in August.
“I’m not sure either,” Bramlette replied.
Bramlette, 43, faces a maximum sentence for the wire fraud charge of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while the payroll tax carries a maximum of five years in prison and jail time. a fine of $10,000.
He said he was treated differently than a former business associate in the Melrose scheme. The government’s case against Anthony Mark “Tony” Hartman, who faces three charges of conspiracy and wire fraud, has been postponed until 2023 as he completes a pretrial diversion program that could keep him out of jail .
“I don’t see the justice system working properly here,” said Bramlette, who has been in the Charleston County Detention Center for nine months.
Gergel assured him that the government will remedy what he believes to be a “disparity in treatment” between him and Hartman in the sentencing of Bramlette, which was not scheduled. He also reminded Bramlette that cooperation is a standard factor in federal sentencing and plea agreements.
The Post and Courier reported in May 2021 that Bramlette had breached his original terms of release while awaiting trial in his home country. For example, he failed to show up for a mandatory drug test and was “argumentative” and uncooperative with probation officers. He was arrested over a year ago in Utah and transferred to South Carolina last summer.
Bramlette also raised concerns this week about his legal counsel, Charlie Cochran, a federal public defender who represents him.
Although Bramlette said he had considered withdrawing his plea, Cochran said he was “pleased” with the deal. Gergel said such a move would be “legally an uphill battle.”
If Bramlette tried to revoke his plea, Cochran said he didn’t think he could effectively represent him in what he called a “relatively unusual” case.
“There’s no suggestion that Mr. Cochran hasn’t done a good job defending you,” Gergel told Bramlette.
After further discussions, Bramlette did not officially revoke his plea or file a complaint against his attorney. Cochran declined to comment outside of the hearing.
The long-running fraud case centered on Bramlette, Hartman and co-worker Travis Kozlowski. Prosecutors say the three partners “knowingly and willfully and with the intent to defraud” collaborated on a plan to purchase and redevelop the Beaufort County resort.
Kozlowski, who pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge, was sentenced to serve time in 2021 and two years of supervised release, court records show.
Bramlette came to South Carolina about a decade ago and took a liking to the financially troubled Melrose property.
Accessible only by boat and occupying a prime spot on Calibogue Sound, the nearly 700-acre resort began to take shape in the 1980s. It eventually included a luxury inn, cabins, a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, tennis courts, equestrian center and hospitality sites.
But Melrose and its predecessors have struggled to catch up with vacationers, in part because of the remoteness. In 2009, its then owner filed for bankruptcy. The group led by Bramlette bought it two years later for $13 million.
The acquisition was financed by a $17.5 million loan from a financial backer in the Netherlands. Bramlette and his partners raised at least another $10 million by tossing high-interest notes to investors who were told their money, including retirement savings, would be used to renovate the gated property and buy more ground. They never followed up.
In 2014, the Dutch financier’s loan was in default. Efforts to refinance or sell the station failed.
And despite losing their stake in May 2015, Bramlette and his partners continued to fundraise without disclosing that they had been left out of the deal, according to court documents. An investor was assured in an August 2015 email that “we are going to get big returns on Melrose over the next 5 years”.
The station filed for bankruptcy for the second time in 2017. The Dutch lender took possession of the property the following year. The station remains closed and is for sale for an undisclosed price.