Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More Ponzi schemes come to light

The NY Times reports that with the stock market downturn and Bernie Madoff's arrest, more Ponzi schemes are coming to light as investors try to withdraw their money.

None are as spectacular as Madoff - that guy might not even have been caught if not for the subprime mess.

But one case caught my eye.

And in Florida, not far from the Palm Beach clubs where Mr. Madoff wooed some of his investors, George L. Theodule, a Haitian immigrant and professed “man of God,” promised churchgoers in a Haitian-American community that he could double their money within 90 days.

He accepted only cash, and despite the too-good-to-be-true sales pitch, he found plenty of investors willing to turn over tens of thousands of dollars.

“The offices were beautiful, and I was told it was a limited liability corporation,” said Reggie Roseme, a deliveryman in Wellington, Fla., who lost his entire savings of $35,000 and now faces foreclosure on his home.

According to federal regulators who have accused him of operating a Ponzi scheme, Mr. Theodule bilked thousands of investors of modest means, like Mr. Roseme, out of $23 million in all, and put $4 million in his own pocket. This money helped pay for two luxury vehicles for Mr. Theodule, a wedding, a lavish house in Georgia and a recent trip to Zurich that federal authorities are now investigating. The fate of the other $19 million is still unknown.


In the South Florida Haitian-American community, Mr. Theodule turned to churches. But his scheme fell apart in November when 40 investors showed up at Mr. Theodule’s office to try to get their money back.

“Theodule had been the king and lived in the community, and then one day he vanished,” said Mr. Roseme, the investor who lost $35,000 in savings.

He described Mr. Theodule as “friendly, someone you could trust, a real positive guy.”

Nerline Horace-Manasse, a 31-year-old Haitian immigrant with six children, saw her life’s savings of $25,000 disappear.

Statements showed her money had grown to $90,000, but when Ms. Manasse asked questions of Mr. Theodule, “he advised he could not tell me where he was putting the money because there were a lot of copycats out there and he’d go out of business.”

Now Ms. Manasse and Mr. Roseme are part of a class-action suit against Mr. Theodule.

Mr. Theodule’s attorney, Matthew N. Thibaut, did not return a call for comment. But in court papers, Mr. Theodule said, “Theodule admits he has told persons that he wants to help build wealth in the Haitian community.”

Close knit communities, especially if they're immigrant and/or racial minority communities, may be especially vulnerable to affinity fraud of various sorts. The people of Detroit, for example, rallied strongly behind the now-disgraced ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for years, even though everyone else knew he was a crook; Detroit is largely African-American, as is Kwame.

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