Cut and Run

Hundreds of mostly poor investors taken for millions? Say it ain't so.

Cut and Run
David Hollenbach
Madeleine Baptiste grabs the meat cleaver lying on the polished counter; wraps her long, bony fingers around the wooden handle; and slowly raises it above her head.

Her brown eyes blaze with anger and despair.

"They need to pay for what they did," she spits. And with that, 52-year-old Madeleine — who asked that New Times change her name — slices through the brisk afternoon air. The knife silently severs the pink, fleshy pork loin she's preparing for dinner.

David Hollenbach
David Hollenbach

Hunched over a thin, plastic chopping block in the dingy kitchen of her rented one-bedroom apartment in Little Haiti, the woman lowers her head as she wipes the blade on a checked apron tied around her waist.

"I don't know how they sleep at night," she mutters. "They stole everything we have."

Madeleine and her husband of 31 years, Henri (whose name has also been changed), moved into the rundown complex on NE 69th Street eight years ago, when the $550-per-month rental was all the couple could afford. An unsavory stench of mold permeates the building's stark interior, and cigarette butts carpet the dank hallways.

So when an accident a few years ago afforded them the opportunity to move into their own home, they were delighted.

Both had full-time jobs, she as a bagger at a supermarket in North Miami Beach, he as a landscaper. But then, in late May 2002, Madeleine fell on a slippery floor and broke her left hip while at work. After she filed a workers' comp claim, an insurance company awarded her almost $30,000.

Less than a month after receiving the funds, they heard a show broadcast in Kreyol on Miami-based WLQY-AM (1320). A business called Focus Development Center Inc. touted an investment opportunity that guaranteed a return of more than fifteen percent on a twelve-month note. And there was a bonus: Her funds would help create jobs for her countrymen by aiding local Haitian-run businesses.

"Develop your community and help Florida Haitians,'" she says, mocking Focus's sales pitch. Madeleine claims she was reassured after learning that several of her friends had already invested. So she and Henri made an appointment to meet with one of Focus Development's key players, Jean Fritz Montinard, at an office in North Miami. There, she says, the couple handed over two checks that totaled $28,000.

Madeleine contends Focus stole her money — a claim the firm's principal players deny. Hers was one name New Times gleaned from a witness list as one of more than 630 Haitian-Americans living in South Florida whom federal regulators say lost about six million dollars in a "Ponzi scheme."

In June 2006, U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore ordered two of the companies' principals, Montinard and Max François, to pay "disgorgement of ill-gotten gains" to the tune of $5.9 million plus interest. This past November, Moore also found a third man, Aiby Pierre-Louis, liable. To date, none of the trio has admitted wrongdoing, nor has anyone been charged criminally in this case.

Montinard, who has a lengthy rap sheet, has been deported to Haiti, according to press reports, and couldn't be reached for comment. François and Pierre-Louis, who also have past criminal convictions, deny involvement. Comments Pierre-Louis: "I am a victim as well."

But brandishing a contract signed by François, Madeleine is less than convinced: "We gave them everything we had. When am I going to get my money?"

The Focus case is one of several known schemes to target immigrant consumers through ads run on foreign-language media outlets. In the past three years alone, alleged con artists have taken locals for at least $22 million, according to suits filed in U.S. District Court in Miami.

One of the most lucrative examples involves three local companies: Call Center Express Corporation, Abreu Advertising Inc. (doing business as La Familia Group), and Pro Line Card LLC. Between June 2003 and September 2004, the firms paid for Spanish-language ads aired across the nation promising major credit cards in exchange for advance fees, federal regulators allege. Customers thought they were purchasing either a MasterCard or Visa, but instead received a card good only for purchasing items on the firms' Website or in their anemic catalogue.

In September 2004 the Federal Trade Commission sued the three companies. One year later U.S. Magistrate Judge Ted Bandstra ordered they pay almost $14 million in consumer redress plus interest.

Several other cases have drawn regulators' attention:

In September 2004, a federal judge ordered American Dream Enterprises LLC and its owner, Andres Fernandez-Salvador, to pay $185,000 in relief. The firm advertised a weight-loss dietary supplement, Fat Seltzer, via various Spanish-language media and falsely claimed the product's effervescent action would produce permanent weight loss without diets or exercise, documents show. A fine of $1.5 million more is threatened if the company misrepresented its finances. The defendants did not admit liability for any of the matters alleged in the complaint.

On February 8, 2006, Miami resident Lazaro J. Rodriguez was indicted on felony charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. A jury is scheduled to decide next month if he misappropriated approximately $1.5 million from more than 400 clients who allegedly responded to ads he ran in Spanish-language newspapers and on Kreyol radio that promised high returns on allegedly bogus schemes.

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