Cut and Run
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.
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.
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"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.
In November 2006, Evelyne Jean-Philippe of Miami filed an affidavit complaining a Miami-based company called Gen-X, which is registered to a local man named Alix Charles, had defrauded her of $90,000. Jean-Philippe claims she heard Charles on WLQY and then handed over money for a house in Port-au-Prince. According to Jean-Philippe, she received neither a home nor her money back. Gen-X is now defunct, and Charles cannot be located. No charges have been filed. James Johnson, area manager of investigations for the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, confirmed that Jean-Philippe filed a complaint, but he offered no further comment.
The federal government released survey results in 2004 that revealed Hispanics were nearly twice as likely to be victims of media-inspired fraud. And the FTC immediately began to crack down. Since launching what has been termed the Hispanic Outreach Initiative, the commission has prosecuted 31 cases nationwide. It has also translated more than 100 publications into Spanish and posted them online (www.ftc.gov) to help Spanish-speakers avoid being conned.
"Miami is an obvious hotbed for anything aimed at Spanish speakers," says FTC spokesperson Frank Dorman.
Problem is, the commission has no such initiative for Kreyol speakers.
Miami-Dade County is home to an estimated quarter-million Haitian immigrants, among the highest concentration in the United States, yet Kreyol media outlets are sparse. One of the few Kreyol newspapers, Hati Progrs, is a weekly, and Haitian television, Island TV, which broadcasts to 400,000 households on Comcast's Channel 19 in Miami-Dade, is only just beginning.
Indeed WLQY, the station that aired Focus's alleged hustle, is one of a handful of local media outlets that gears its programming largely to the Kreyol-speaking community. Owned by California-based Entravision Communications Corp., the station is one of the most popular among local Kreyol speakers.
According to the station manager, Rick Santos, most of the time slots for shows broadcast from the Biscayne Boulevard headquarters are leased to approximately 60 independent contractors.
"We broker time to groups who don't have a platform," says Kim Holt, Entravision's media relations representative. In a written statement, the firm denied any involvement in Focus's affairs: "Entravision's policies regarding advertising and paid programming expressly prohibit the broadcast of material that is deceptive, fraudulent, or otherwise misleading."
Focus Development Center Inc. and Focus Financial Associates collectively Focus Group began subleasing time slots on WLQY in February 2002. The firm was one of several ventures operated by François, Montinard, and Pierre-Louis, corporate records reveal. Others included a chiropractic center, an auto clinic, a used-car dealership, a property management company, a landscaping business, and an airline.
According to Roger Cruz, senior counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission, Focus paid for morning and late-afternoon radio time six days per week. Segments generally lasted 30 minutes to an hour, during which hosts would try to generate interest in and support for their various services, eight listeners interviewed by New Times agree.
"The show would usually start with a prayer," says Philomene Theriot (whose name has been changed). She and her 65-year-old husband, Udelis, she claims, were taken for $5000. "They would play music, and different men would talk about how we could make our community better by putting our money to work in Haitian-run businesses like theirs."
Sitting on a dining room chair still wrapped in plastic in her spotless Miami Shores home, Theriot toys with a bowl of faux fruit. "If we had money in the bank, it was being wasted, they said. They told us that we should put it back into our community and we would make money too. They said it was guaranteed."
She points to a contract, signed by François, lying on the plastic-covered table in front of her. It stipulates interest would be paid quarterly at a rate of fifteen percent. She also says François was adamant she could terminate the agreement at any time without penalty.
But she received only two interest payments that totaled $375. And though she asked for the $5000 back, she never received it. "That money, it was our savings," she cries.
In June 2005 the SEC filed a complaint against Montinard, François, and Pierre-Louis, alleging they mismanaged businesses that quickly failed and generated a fraction of the income needed to repay investors.
The suit alleged each of the men was equally accountable for failing to return almost six million dollars to consumers.
Indeed the people interviewed for this article who bought into Focus's alleged scheme recall meeting the men. They also claim to have heard them participate in on-air radio segments. The investors agree that the three presented themselves as polite and successful businessmen.
But appearance differs from reality. All have rap sheets.
The most interesting of the trio is 37-year-old Montinard. On July 28, 1992, court documents show, he was working as a jitney driver. His license was suspended at the time, and he didn't have any insurance. Shortly before 6:30 a.m. he was navigating the minibus, a 1984 Dodge van, northbound on NE Second Avenue near 82nd Street. He was almost a block away from the light when it turned red. But in a frenzy to beat a rival jitney driver to the next stop, Montinard stepped on the gas, clocking speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour. He shot through the intersection and slammed into the driver's side of a westbound Nissan Sentra. The impact flipped the jitney and forced the Sentra onto its side. The car skidded an estimated 107 feet. Its driver, 31-year-old Nancy Roldan, was transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital with twelve fractured ribs, a fractured spine, a ruptured spleen, a crushed left kidney, and massive bleeding. She later died from the injuries. About a year later, Montinard was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years' community service and ten years' probation.
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.
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.
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.
Jean François, a 42-year-old auto mechanic, claims he lost $15,000. "They said they wanted to help our community, and instead they steal from us!"
Concludes meat-cleaver-swinging Madeleine Baptiste: "I keep hearing about lawsuits, but I don't see my money. But if they are guilty, and they stole it, and they have cars and houses, then the United States government needs to ... get us our money back. I don't have a house, but they get to keep theirs?"
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