The Racket Club

There's good money to be made in the game of insurance fraud. Maybe that's why some greedy people are so willing to hustle for clients, fake injuries, stage car accidents, and tell lies.

Panter now says those allegations are all behind him and he continues to maintain he did nothing wrong. "That's old news, my friend," he says. "We resolved it amicably with the Bar. Whatever it was, it was."

Today Brett Panter is in the middle of perhaps the most high-profile automobile accident in Miami history -- the fatal New Year's Day crash on U.S. 1 in which a Corvette, driven by a fifteen-year-old allegedly at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, crashed into a Chevette, slicing the Chevette in half and killing all three of its passengers. Panter represents the family of one of those victims, Luis Jerez.

Several times during those secretly tape-recorded telephone conversations with Patty Rodriguez, "legal assistant" Luis Rangel voiced concern over the possibility of being taped. "I don't like to use telephones," Rangel says on one of the tapes, "because you never know." Rangel clearly didn't follow his instincts, but in fact his troubles began the very first time he talked to Rodriguez. He had called U.S. Security Insurance as part of routine and perfectly legitimate investigation he was conducting for attorney Dennis Brod. In his effort to verify certain insurance information about a client, Rangel was transferred to Patty Rodriguez, a customer service representative.

Investigators claim that during that first conversation in late 1990, Rangel broached the subject of Rodriguez's becoming an informant. When the call ended, Rodriguez immediately reported Rangel's offer to her supervisors, who notified the fraud unit for the Florida Department of Insurance.

John Askins, along with investigators Susan Alberti and Andy Moya, decided to launch a sting operation and persuaded Rodriguez to call back Rangel and take him up on his offer. When investigators listened to recordings of the conversations that followed, they were amazed at the boldness of Rangel's sales pitch and prepared to set their trap. (When contacted last month at his home, Rangel said he would love to talk about the case, but his defense attorney won't let him.)

On January 9, 1991, Moya, an investigator who had been with the fraud unit for a couple of years and who previously had worked as an investigator at the State Attorney's Office, posed as an accident victim and called Rangel. The conversation was recorded. Moya introduced himself as Luis Acosta. He told Rangel that three weeks earlier he had been behind the wheel of his 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass in South Miami when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver. (A phony accident report was created and placed on file with the South Miami Police Department, just in case Rangel decided to check.)

Rangel asked "Acosta" if he was adequately insured. No problem, Acosta assured him, he had uninsured motorist coverage with U.S. Security. (A phony insurance policy was drafted and filed in Luis Acosta's name.)

And how did Acosta know to call Rangel? Acosta told him he was referred by a woman at the insurance company, Patty Rodriguez.

The next day Rangel had two conversations with Acosta. In the first, he said he'd already confirmed that Acosta was indeed insured and that he would begin arranging appointments with a few doctors. But later that afternoon Rangel called back and told Acosta the claim would be too troublesome to process through his office because so much time had passed without him seeing a doctor. But don't worry, Rangel assured him, he knew of another attorney he could contact. Rangel gave Acosta the name and address of Raul Delgado.

Later that night Rangel called Patty Rodriguez at home. Again the conversation was secretly recorded. "You sent the guy to me, right?" Rangel asked. "His name is Luis Acosta."

"Right," Rodriguez replied.
"He had the accident on the nineteenth," Rangel said. "It's been a long time already. We can't handle something like that in the office. The doctors that we work with wouldn't do it." Rangel then explained that he had sent Acosta to a different attorney, Raul Delgado. "He works with other doctors that will do things that our doctors won't do," Rangel said. Cryptically, Rangel claimed the doctors and the clinics Acosta would visit could do things "retroactively."

In an offhand manner, Rangel asked Rodriguez which insurance adjuster would be handling Acosta's claim. "Do you know him well?" he asked. "Because he could do a lot."

Rangel suggested that as negotiations between attorney Delgado and the insurance adjuster progressed, Rodriguez should lie to the adjuster and mention that Acosta has been a friend of hers for many years. And she could eventually ask the adjuster to increase his settlement offer. "They can do it," he instructed. "They can go higher."

Even though his office wouldn't be handling Acosta's case, Rangel continued, she would still be paid her $200 referral fee. "I'm not going to make anything on this case," he said. "But I want you to make money on the case. Hopefully you can get other cases and give them to me, and I can pay you cash out of my own pocket."

A successful relationship would benefit from some long-range planning, and Rangel was eager to motivate Rodriguez. He implored her to learn as much as she could about the operations of her office A the decision-making chain of command, authority for approving payment amounts, and more. "You've got to find out," he said sternly. "Learn." He ended with a familiar refrain: "You can make money. Keep your eyes open."

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