Cut and Run

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

Details are sparse about several of Montinard's other crimes, because the courts have either misplaced or destroyed the files. But computer records show he was convicted in 1993 of aggravated battery on a pregnant woman and sentenced to two years' community service. In 2001 he was jailed for 270 days for violating his probation. Montinard has also been fingered in a slew of civil wranglings that include a paternity suit in which he was ordered to pay child support, and an eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Two years ago he was deported to Haiti, according to a recent Daily Business Review article.

Less information is available about François, whom Judge Moore singled out to pay an additional $120,000 penalty in the Focus case. In July 1981, less than three months after arriving in the United States as a Haitian refugee, he sauntered into a jewelry store on East Flagler Street in downtown Miami, court records show. Posing as a man named Ridway François, he tried to cash a check for a little more than $500. In his pocket, records show, he had a second check from the same company for nearly $1900. Both were stolen from a nearby company mailbox. François pleaded guilty to grand theft and was placed on probation for two years. In a recent phone interview, his lawyer, Michael D. Harris, contended François is now "a broken man" who knew nothing of the Focus scam.

David Hollenbach
David Hollenbach

Pierre-Louis is the only one of the trio who agreed to speak with New Times. The short, stocky, dark-skinned man says he met François in early 2002 at a Haitian political conference at Florida International University.

The two struck up a conversation, he says, and François later offered to hire him as a floater, solving problems at the management level for the various Focus companies. "I would sometimes go on the radio, yeah," he says, "but never to talk about investments, just getting people to use a landscaping business or talk about the auto shop."

In April 2002, Pierre-Louis says he readily accepted the responsibility of signing Focus's checks. But in December 2003, when his own paycheck bounced, he quit. Save for a construction job in 2005, Pierre-Louis claims to have been unemployed ever since.

"I'm sorry for the people who lost their money," he laments, "but I had no part in this.... [Focus] even owes me money too. They never paid me, which is why I left."

Like the other two men, though, Pierre-Louis has a criminal record. In October 2004 he went to a stranger's house on NW 174th Street and knocked on the door. When the resident answered, Pierre-Louis punched him in the face. After the man shut the door, Pierre-Louis smashed a window with a concrete paver and ransacked the house, searching for the man. Pierre-Louis was arrested and charged with burglary and battery. In May 2005 he was sentenced to two years' probation.

When New Times first questioned him, Pierre-Louis denied having ever been arrested. But he later admitted to the crime, claiming the man was having an affair with his then-wife.

Two other points in the interview raised questions. Though he claims to live in a home he bought in 1993, county records reveal Pierre-Louis purchased the two-bedroom, single-story house for $150,000 less than eight months ago. And though he stated, "I'm not even a principal of the company," he is listed as a director on several of Focus Group's incorporation papers. Pierre-Louis is the only one of the three men not listed on Focus's stockholder agreement.

"His only crime is trusting the wrong people," says Pierre-Louis's lawyer, Frank L. Hollander. "He has no criminal guilt.... He was a pawn."

So how can Ponzi schemes like the one run by Focus be stopped?

The alphabet soup of government bodies charged with enforcing regulation — FTC, FCC, SEC, FBI — is confusing at best. The FCC licenses radio stations; the FTC monitors troublesome advertising; the SEC protects investors; and the FBI investigates fraud, theft, and embezzlement. But none actively searches media for possible deceptive offers, products, or services.

"We don't go out and find out if they are scamming," says Frank Dorman, an FTC spokesperson in Washington. "Once we receive a number of complaints, that's when we go to work."

And proving claims of false advertising can be difficult. Station managers and owners are not legally required to tape shows, which makes collecting evidence difficult.

Furthermore, there is no mandate that managers at stations like WLQY check the legitimacy of anything they broadcast. "Whoever leases time slots is subject to FCC rules," says Entravision spokesperson Kim Holt. The firm's written statement concludes, "If Entravision determines that any advertising or paid programming contains material in violation of these policies, the advertiser or paid programmer's relationship with the station will be terminated immediately. In addition, we continuously train our station managers and employees in FCC and other broadcasting regulations." Indeed, in the wake of the SEC complaint filed against Focus, Holt claims WLQY followed in the footsteps of companies like Univision and began broadcasting public service announcements alerting listeners to the possibility of Ponzi schemes.

"Am I going to get my money?" questions 74-year-old Marie Delatour. She shakes a photocopy of a personal check she made out to Focus in November 2003 for $40,000. It was the proceeds, she says, from the sale of her house. She handed it over and never got it back.

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