The former Epix executive who was indicted in 2016 for stealing nearly $8 million from the premium cabler will learn his fate Friday when he is sentenced by a federal judge in Manhattan.
Prosecutors are seeking a prison term of four to five years for Emil Rensing, the former chief digital officer of Epix. Rensing, 44, last year pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud.
Prosecutors described Rensing’s scheme as “a sophisticated and calculated fraud” that involved Rensing setting up phony vendors, submitting bogus invoices to Epix for work that was never performed and signing the names of some of his former business associates to invoices without their knowledge. He was originally charged in April 2016 with one count of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Rensing was fired from Epix in August 2015 after executives became suspicious of billing practices in his department.
Rensing’s attorneys have asked U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero for a 15-month sentence. In court documents, Rensing attorney Henry Mazurek emphasized Rensing’s remorse, the loss of his career as a media executive, and the fact that he can put his digital media and IT savvy to use for charitable purposes as a form of restitution.
“Removing a person from society like Emil Rensing, who can give back by volunteering his technical and creative genius to others, makes little sense even from a punishment perspective,” Rensing’s legal team argued in sentencing documents filed last week. The filing asserted Rensing “is a technical genius” who had an “obsession with work that left destruction in his personal life.”
Rensing’s fall from grace was a shock for his friends and associates. He is well-known in digital media and technology circles. After attending George Washington University, he was an early employee of AOL in the 1990s and helped develop the pioneering AOL Instant Messenger service, among other innovations. He served a stint at MTV Networks and was involved in numerous digital startups, including the Frederator Studios venture with former MTV Networks and Hanna-Barbera executive Fred Seibert, and Next New Networks, with Seibert and former Nickelodeon executive Herb Scannell.
Seibert, Scannell, fellow MTV Networks alum Albie Hecht, publisher Bob Guccione Jr., and digital media entrepreneur Noah Lehmann-Haupt were among the 57 people who submitted letters to the judge regarding Rensing’s character. “I love Emil like a brother,” Guccione wrote after describing the help he received from Rensing when he first began investing in Internet-related businesses.
Rensing’s lawyers and friends paint a picture of an insecure man from a dysfunctional family who was eager to impress his father with his success and achievements. He also was under pressure to provide financial support to his mother, and one of his three sisters and her daughter.
Rensing grew up in Levittown, N.Y. and was a theater buff as a youth. One of the character letters was submitted by Jim Hoare, Rensing’s former drama teacher at Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville, N.Y. Rensing once had the lead role in the school’s production of the musical “Once on This Island.”
“From the teenager who told me that stage lighting and computers would merge, to the man he is today, Emil is a visionary who loves to look forward to see and participate in what is next. lt would break my heart if he found himself in a situation where he could no longer look forward,” Hoare wrote.
Friends and associates describe Rensing as a generous and warm-hearted person who loved pop culture, cats and fast cars.
In 2009, Rensing was jolted by the end of his 13-year marriage to his high school girlfriend and the onset of undisclosed health problems. The unexpected death of the sister he had helped support was another traumatic experience, according to court documents.
By the time he joined Epix in April 2010, Rensing’s emotional state was fragile.
“Regrettably, and tragically, Emil acted out to buttress the losses in his personal life by giving himself extra compensation from Epix – compensation that was not authorized, or sometimes, even earned,” Mazurek wrote. “This fact highlights the extreme manic spending and investing Mr. Rensing did during this period. He binged on bad investments and fast cars, rather than seeking help to stabilize his life.”
Prosecutors say Rensing’s fraud began just a few months after he joined Epix. In October 2010, he created phony email accounts and signed the names of former co-workers to invoices for a company that provided technical services as Epix built its streaming platform — an effort that was pioneering in its day. Rensing maintains he disclosed his involvement in the company, Streaming Media Services, to the company.
Prosecutors counter that Rensing nonetheless defrauded the company by masking the nature of the company and inflating its size, in addition to falsifying signatures. When Epix’s corporate policy changed to bar the use of third-party vendors associated with employees, Rensing continued his fraud by creating another phony vendor to bill the company for services that were never provided or handled by other Epix employees.
“This was not sloppiness or embellishment. It was a sophisticated and calculated fraud,” Elisha Kobre, assistant U.S. Attorney, wrote in the sentencing document. All told, Rensing defrauded Epix of $7,774,469.52, according to court documents. Prosecutors maintain Rensing felt he was owed more compensation because he delivered cutting-edge technological work at a cost that was far less that Epix’s larger rivals were shelling out at the time.
Rensing’s lawyers point to the startup culture at Epix for creating conditions that were conducive to fraud. Epix was formed in 2008 as a joint venture of Viacom, Lionsgate and MGM (it’s now wholly owned by MGM). Viacom provided back-office and administrative support for Epix early on. The simple fact that Epix’s billing systems were not compatible with Viacom’s allowed Rensing to move through his phony invoices.
“Mr. Rensing clearly took advantage of the lack of defined roles early in the Epix evolution and grabbed more of the work for his own outside business. However, as he grabbed more and more work, he became increasingly reckless in billing, often failing to document what specific work was being completed and who was doing it. At the same time, Mr. Rensing was able to complete most of Epix’s technology projects under or at budget, despite redundant or over-billing,” Rensing attorneys wrote in the sentencing submission. “He was able to do so by relying on cheap labor sources and his direct participation in most projects that increased efficiencies and productivity. In effect, while SMS’s billing was a charade (made-up personnel and sometimes projects), management of Epix still received the work product that it needed and that Mr. Rensing was directed to produce.”
Rensing was hired at a salary of $290,000 a year and was up to $370,000 by the time he was fired. Prosecutors say Rensing used some of the money he stole from Epix to fund his other side ventures, including digital media firms that ran the YouTube channels Drive and Fast Lane Daily. One of the character letters submitted on Rensing’s behalf came from Derek DeAngelis, former host of Fast Lane Daily.
“Emil isn’t perfect, none of us are, but we all make mistakes, and sure, some are bigger than others,” DeAngelis wrote. “What I do know is that he is a good person. There is no doubt in my mind he is remorseful for what has occurred recently in his life with this whole situation.”
Prosecutors disagree, thus the push for the longer sentence because of what they characterize as Rensing’s continued assertion that he provided great value to Epix over his tenure. “They are not the statements of one who has fully accepted responsibility for his crimes,” Kobre wrote. Rensing’s theft “motivated by greed and avarice,” and when he was finally confronted by his employer, “he told lie after lie to the network,” Kobre wrote.
Rensing maintains he is committed to turning his life around. In recent months he has done volunteer IT and grant-writing work with the Fortune Society, an advocacy group that helps former prison inmates transition back into society. He has also been granted court permission to travel outside of New York several times during the past year to do consulting work.
The competing narratives on Rensing’s actions are expected to reach a climax later today in a Manhattan courtroom as Judge Marrero hands down his sentence, after months of postponements.
“I’m absolutely guilty,” Rensing wrote in his own letter to the judge, according to excerpts cited in court documents. “Everything positive I had done [was] erased because of my bad acts. That’s the message that I think about every day. The words are seared in to my brain. That I’m bad, broken, and worthless. And that’s what really pushed me to focus on my bad actions….As difficult as this period has been for me, some good has come from it. It has forced a dramatic self-examination, re-assessment of priorities, and a focus on making things right.”