Prosecutors want 60-month prison sentence for former Primis Bank loan officer

primis sign

Primis Bank is headquartered in Henrico County. (BizSense file photo)

Updated: This story has been updated to reflect a rescheduled sentencing date.

If the U.S. Attorney’s Office has its way, a local banker’s long-running, multimillion-dollar lending scheme could land him in federal prison for five years.

Prosecutors are asking for a 60-month sentence for James Stevens, who embezzled more than $2 million over 15 years from the Henrico-based Primis Bank and its predecessors.

Stevens, who has pleaded guilty to the crime, has asked for a more lenient sentence of 42 months.

His fate will be decided on June 13, when he’ll be sentenced before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Payne, who has the ultimate say on the length of Stevens’ punishment.

Stevens, 47, was charged on Feb. 5 and pleaded guilty on Feb. 21 to one count of bank fraud and agreed to pay restitution to the bank of $2.47 million.

The lifelong Northern Neck resident was a commercial lender and branch manager at Primis and previous incarnations Sonabank, EVB and Southside Bank from 2000 to 2023.

In asking for a 60-month sentence, the government described a loan scheme that ran from 2008 through June 2023. The scheme involved issuing numerous fraudulent loans in the names of both witting and unwitting Primis customers.

“Over the next 15 years, the defendant would issue more than three dozen fraudulent loans – using those loan proceeds to cover his previous fraudulent loans; to pay himself, or to pay others he associated with,” prosecutors stated in their sentence request.

Stevens also withdrew nearly $100,000 from a customer’s account without their knowledge and concealed the withdrawals by changing the billing address on their account so they would no longer receive their monthly account statements.

The scam, according to court filings, came to an end when Stevens was hospitalized last year and unable to maintain payments on fraudulently obtained loans.

Stevens pleaded guilty via a criminal information process, which involved no arrest and a waiver of indictment.

He has remained free on a personal recognizance bond until his sentencing. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 30 years but will surely be far lower.

While he’s a first-time offender and ultimately cooperated with authorities once charged, prosecutors emphasized the length of Stevens’ scam in asking for 60 months imprisonment.

“The defendant chose to re-devote himself to criminal conduct every day for 15-plus years, and the Court’s sentence should acknowledge and reflect the defendant’s singular commitment to committing fraud,” the USAO stated.

richmond federal courthouse

The U.S. District Court in Richmond, where Stevens’ case is playing out. (BizSense file)

Stevens and his attorney, Laura Koenig from the Office of the Federal Public Defender, made their case for a more lenient sentence by attempting to illustrate an otherwise virtuous life of a hardworking man who made a mistake in judgement that spiraled out of control.

The son of a modular home salesman, Stevens was born as the only boy in a set of triplets and had six total siblings, according to court records.

He was valedictorian of Northumberland High School and graduated from Virginia Tech. He started with the bank as a branch manager, always working in or near his hometown around the Northern Neck.

Stevens’ sentence request documents included a stack of letters from his supporters including childhood friends, his high school guidance counselor, a former Primis Bank coworker and one of his triplet sisters.

They repeatedly reference their shock that Stevens could be involved in a crime and cite his community involvement in the close-knit Northern Neck area. For example, several of the letters mention his participation in Hunters for Hunger, through which he’s known to donate every deer he shoots while hunting to a program that feeds homeless families in his area.

“As those who know him best have written, Mr. Stevens’ conduct in this case was a complete aberration from the otherwise upstanding man he is,” Koenig wrote to the judge.

Koenig added that show of support for Stevens included “some of the most moving letters that undersigned counsel has seen in her time doing this work.”

“All recognize that Mr. Stevens must pay a debt to society and to the bank, but all seek to temper the hand of punishment into one of justice for Mr. Stevens. In this case, justice counsels leniency and mercy.”

Despite that support, one of the letters states that many in the small community have turned on Stevens as news of his actions spread.

“(Stevens) has been tried and convicted in the eyes of his small town peers,” one of his supporters wrote in a letter to the judge.

While he has accepted responsibility for committing the crime, his attorney argued to Judge Payne that one of the borrowers of one of the loans in question is what led him down the criminal path.

Koenig explained that years ago Stevens extended loans to a customer who did not make payments and allegedly threatened him when it came time to collect on the loans. That same borrower ultimately went to prison and was then unable to pay the loans. Koenig claims Stevens then extended his own personal credit to cover those loans and “when that was exhausted, he ultimately began the fraudulent conduct in this case.”

“His consistent efforts to take care of those in his community is ultimately what got him entangled in the web that led to his crime in this case,” Koenig wrote.

“Mr. Stevens is a man no court will ever see involved in another criminal case. He truly regrets the harms he has caused and willingly accepts the punishment the Court imposes on him,” Koenig continued.

Primis Bank, which is headquartered in Henrico and keeps its parent company headquarters in McLean, first disclosed the fraud last summer in a quarterly earnings report.

The bank at the time did not reveal Stevens’ name, only that it discovered the $2.5 million scam and expected to recover the losses through insurance policies.

The bank emphasized at the time that it was a one-off issue and did not involve other employees.

POSTED IN Banking

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Fred Squire
Fred Squire
8 days ago

This guy plead guilty. He needs to do the time and his public defender is of course a schmuck. First time offense is no excuse for leniency. It occurred over 15 years. He was just simply caught once.

until punishments are relative to the crimes people will keep taking advantage of citizens. Just like the stories we read each month on some new home reno company screwing everyone over

Craig Davis
Craig Davis
7 days ago
Reply to  Fred Squire

His attorney is not a “schmuck” for representing her client. While you may believe you possess the wisdom of Solomon and are competent to pass judgment, your comments tell a different story. He will “do the time”- the question is how much because there hasn’t been a sentence yet. Its a simple fight over 18 months: the prosecutor wants 60 months, his lawyer wants 42.

Fred Squire
Fred Squire
7 days ago
Reply to  Craig Davis

You are right I am no genius, but I stand by my statement regardless of my lack of superpowers….that a first time offense doesn’t really lessen the extent of the damage of 15 years of running a criminal scheme because he was never caught and charged in any of those 15 years. Another option for defense – Maybe it is really the bank’s fault for not catching him in 15 years…they enabled the behavior and really they are at fault for not turning him in to the police sooner. The article classifies the defense as he “made a mistake.” A… Read more »

Michael Morgan-Dodson
Michael Morgan-Dodson
7 days ago

I think the guidance should be changed one year for each 100,000 stolen or embezzled or one year for each year they conducted the fraud or embezzlement; whichever is greater.