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For four years, Scott Usher sold attorneys, builders and other investors -- even his sister -- on a plan to get rich on his inventions, promising that billion-dollar deals with oil tycoons and Chinese diplomats were right around the corner.

People quit their jobs to work for the Lincoln man, now 46, and paid his family's living expenses to work on his cutting-edge ideas.

They bought cars, a treadmill, even flew him and his family to Hawaii to work on the deal with China. His sister cashed in her retirement account and pension and gave him the money.

Trouble is, it was all lies.

"He was very persuasive when he wanted to be," Lincoln real estate agent Tom Mullen told U.S. District Judge John Gerrard on Tuesday, at a hearing to determine how much restitution Usher and his wife, Robin, should have to pay as part of a federal criminal case against them.

A grand jury indicted Scott Usher in 2013.

In February, Scott Usher pleaded guilty to wire fraud for being the mastermind behind the scam. Robin Usher, admitted to being an accessory, in a deal for probation.

Gerrard said Usher was at the center of the cyclone of the fraud that grew because of his repeated lies to investors, drawings of his so-called inventions and descriptions of fabricated, imaginary contacts with important people.

"This is a man who apparently can sell ice blocks to Eskimos," Gerrard said before he sent him to federal prison for seven years and ordered him to pay $519,230.02 in restitution.

Michael Hansen of the Federal Public Defender's Office, had argued for less, saying that to call his crime sophisticated "belies the fact that all Scott Usher was doing was lying."

This isn't Enron, Hansen said, referring to the company that hid its financial condition before going bankrupt in 2001, nor Bernie Madoff, the man behind an elaborate Ponzi scheme considered one of the largest financial frauds in U.S. history.

Usher was the idea man, and lied over and over, but it was others who got people to give him money without looking into his ridiculous claims, Hansen said.

"At some point in time, fraud victims have to do some due diligence," he said.

Hansen said Usher is mentally ill and gets delusional when not on medication. He's seen it first-hand.

Hansen said Usher, who has been living at the city mission, tried to tell him he could pay restitution before sentencing because he was going to be signing a contract soon to travel the country as a blues singer.

Hansen said he didn't believe him for a second.

Jan Sharp, chief of the Criminal Division of the Nebraska U.S. Attorney's Office, said Usher was just trying to escape responsibility for what he did by pointing to some unspecified mental problem.

"Mr. Usher defrauded some very intelligent people," he said, and it went on for years. "I think that's a testament to how good he was."

Sharp said Usher still would be ripping people off if he hadn't gotten caught.

Usher said he started the company to make money, "regardless of what everybody thinks."

Then one misstatement led to 1,000 lies, he said. Usher said they added to his delusions of grandeur, but he's on medication now and in counseling and intends to be law-abiding the rest of his life.

Earlier Tuesday, Mullen testified how it had started off as a relatively small business making solar-powered windmills.

"At some point that morphed into the bigger, better deal. It was always about that," he said.

There was a project to create solar-powered pivots and to capture the heat that comes off highways. But the biggest was Usher's "vortex desalinator," to remove salt from seawater inexpensively.

He said Usher told investors Shell Oil, Exxon Mobil, even China, all were interested. He said he'd talked with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden about it, and that Matt Damon had agreed to be the company spokesman.

But something always held up the deal, Mullen said.

By the end, he and others had given Usher more than a half million dollars, Sharp showed.

On Wednesday, Gerrard also gave Robin Usher five years of probation with eight months of home confinement and 12 weekends of incarceration, and ordered her to pay $85,878.55 in restitution for her part in the fraud.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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