A Delaware County man yesterday pleaded guilty in federal district court to running a Ponzi scheme for 13 years that bilked investors of $20 million.

Joseph S. Forte, 54, of Broomall, ran the scheme - in which early investors are paid with funds obtained from newer investors - from 1996 to 2008 and collected millions from about 70 investors.

Forte told investors that he traded in stock-futures contracts that returned between 18 and 38 percent, but he admitted yesterday in court that he actually had done little trading and lost money when he did.

Forte kept the Ponzi scheme going by misleading investors with bogus financial data about his investment fund, Joseph Forte L.P.

First, he sent e-mails to an accountant containing false information about his trades, the status of investors' investments and the worth of his partnership.

Then Forte instructed the accountant to mail investors quarterly statements based on the phony information that he had supplied to the accountant, court papers said.

The last quarterly statement, mailed on Sept. 30, 2008, said the value of Forte's investment fund was $154.7 million when its actual value was less than $150,000, court papers said.

U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois set sentencing for Oct. 2.

Forte, who has been free on $100,000 unsecured bail since his arrest in January, was permitted to remain so yesterday pending sentencing.

He could face up to 57 to 71 months behind bars under preliminary advisory sentencing guidelines, based on stipulations in the plea agreement.

Forte has also agreed to forfeit more than $20 million.

Defense attorney Joseph Fioravanti said during the plea hearing that Forte had also been charged civilly by the Securities & Exchange Commission and that he was cooperating with their investigators.

Fioravanti declined to comment to reporters after the hearing.

Forte paid himself millions in fees and used the money to buy a beach home in Sea Isle City, N.J. and to make a $200,000 gift to a Malvern school, court papers said.

He also got Commerce Bank to lend him $500,000 in April 2008 based on a financial statement that his investment fund had a value of $3.5 million when its checking account had a balance of $219,000 and there were no funds in its brokerage account, according to court testimony.

Forte's Ponzi scheme unraveled in December, when he was no longer able to get new investment money and investors were requesting to cash out. He confessed his role in the scheme to a federal postal inspector in December, an arrest affidavit said. *