They are a hard-working immigrant group with virtually no financial wriggle room. Whatever money can be scrimped together is often sent to relatives still living in their impoverished and disaster-devastated homecountry. As a demographic, they can least afford to lose their savings-- and yet South Florida's Haitian-Americans community is increasingly targeted by scammers exploiting an insular trust.
Four men-- Jean-Fritz Montinard, Maxo Francois, Aiby Pierre-Louis and Maguy Nereus-- were charged this week with orchestrating an $8 million dollar Ponzi scheme that targeted roughly 600 local Haitian-Americans.
The scammers, which New Times exposed in a 2007 feature, "Cut and Run", lured their victims through presentations made in churches and on Kreyol-language radio station WLQY-AM (1320). Pembroke Pines-based Focus Development Center, Inc., as the accused company was called, promised a fifteen-percent return on investment within twelve months. Additionally, he funds would help create jobs in the Haitian community, Focus' principals declared.
Roughly three-quarters of the investors lost everything. A civil judgment ordered the principals, who all have criminal records, to pay $5.9 million in restitution to their victims. It's unclear whether they've paid any of that money back. "They said they wanted to help our community," Jean François, a mechanic who lost $15,000, told New Times in 2007, "and instead they steal from us!"
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It's one of many examples of Haitian-American "affinity fraud"-- the term for schemes designed to exploit a common cultural bond.
In 2008, George Theodule was convicted of orchestrating a $23 million Ponzi scheme on fellow local Haitian-Americans, and is now serving four years in prison. And, as New Times reported in April, four men have pled guilty or are facing charges that they defrauded the same community in a $14.3 million caper that promised to double investors' cash in 90 days.
If convicted, the four principals behind Focus Development could each face 20 years in prison and $16 million in fines.