The Racket Club
"Is this Luis?"
"Yes," Luis Rangel answers.
"Hi," says Patty Rodriguez. "Do you remember who I am?"
"Of course I remember you," Rangel responds. "I don't forget a beautiful voice."
"Thank you," Rodriguez says demurely. "I was calling about what you told me."
"I am in desperate need of money."
"Don't we all," Rangel says sympathetically.
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Only a few days had passed since Rodriguez and Rangel had first spoken on the phone, and Rodriguez was now calling back to take him up on his offer for fast cash. An employee of U.S. Security Insurance, Rodriguez had access to the type of information that is the lifeblood of Rangel's business. According to authorities, Rangel is a "runner" -- a private investigator, of sorts, who rounds up victims of automobile accidents and steers them to a select group of attorneys who then negotiate lucrative settlements with insurance companies.
But as Rangel repeatedly tells her, he is only interested in "victims" and only if there is adequate insurance coverage. He won't handle the case of a driver who was at fault in an accident; there is just no money in it. No problem, Rodriguez tells him. But she has her own priority. She asks him how long will it take to get paid after she turns over a good lead or induces a potential client to call him. "As soon as I find out that they have insurance, I put it in your hand," Rangel assures her. "If I get a client today, and today I find that he has insurance, today you have the money."
"And that's how much?" Rodriguez asks.
"Two hundred," Rangel says flatly.
Later she inquires, "Is this going to be cash?"
Throughout their conversation, Rodriguez is somewhat coy. She doesn't want to sound too eager. "I know I need the money...," Rodriguez repeats with a bit of hesitation in her voice.
"But listen to me," Rangel interrupts. "It's not against the law. But what you have to do is be very careful so nobody at your work finds out."
Rangel is wrong about the legality, but it hardly matters. Rodriguez seems hooked. She repeats the instructions she's been given. "Okay, I refer them to you and give them the phone number, right?" Rodriguez asks.
"Give them the telephone, and if you want, I will give you my cards," Rangel adds. Earlier, when Rodriguez called Rangel's office, she asked the receptionist for "attorney Luis Rangel." Rangel now takes a moment to correct her mistake. "By the way," he adds, "I'm not a defense attorney. I'm a legal assistant."
"Oh, you're a legal assistant."
"I'm a legal assistant," he repeats. "The attorney is Dennis Brod."
Rangel tells her he is an ex-police officer and that he has a master's degree in criminology and constitutional law. "I went to FIU," he says.
"I wish I was going to FIU," sighs Rodriguez.
"You could," Rangel interjects.
"I can't," laments Rodriguez. "I don't have money to go to FIU."
"Well, we're talking about money now," Rangel says smoothly. "We're talking money. This is serious business. There is a lot of money to be made in it. A lot of money."
During a pair of phone calls on this first day of their new partnership back in December 1990, Rangel further clarifies his relationship to attorney Dennis Brod. "It's my office also," he says. "We're partners in the office. I do all the investigative part, I do the negotiating part of the accident." (Brod describes Rangel as merely a "tenant" in the same building who happens to share the same office and phone lines. Rangel, he says, has done investigative work for him in the past, but he steadfastly asserts that Rangel has never referred or brought a case to his practice. "Never," the attorney declares.)
Rangel boasts during their talks that he has muchachitas -- young women just like Rodriguez -- who work at a number of different insurance companies in the area. They each earn up to $800 per week referring cases to him, he claims. "They're people who know my interest and they send people like crazy," Rangel boasts.
"So do you guys have a lot of claims in the office?" Rodriguez wonders.
"We have a lot of claims in the office," he says.
With Christmas approaching, Rodriguez explains, she can really use some extra money right away.
Rangel tells her not to worry: "With two or three little cases that you send me before the 24th or 25th, whatever, or before New Year's, with those little cases you would have $600."
"That's good," Rodriguez reasons.
"Of course!" Rangel exclaims. "And another thing, we're talking about regular cases. But let's say you send me a really big case. Not only do you get $200, but if it's a real big case, I'll take care of you again. If" -- he stresses -- "it's a real big case."
"You'll take care of what?"
"I'll take care of you again," he repeats. "I'll give you some more money."
"Oh," she says, brightening at the prospect. "More money."
"In a big case."
"Right, like a major injury."
Accident victims with broken legs or arms bring in particularly good settlements. "A broken bone," Rangel muses, "we're talking $30,000, $40,000."
"There was something like that that came in last week, in a car wreck," Rodriguez offers.
"There you go," Rangel says. "Keep your eyes open. All you gotta do is do it for yourself and don't tell anyone. So they don't get jealous. I've got a young woman who's been doing this for me since '86."
"That's a long time," Rodriguez notes. "Too bad I didn't hear about this before."
"It's never too late," he says. "When you earn your first $800, you'll see that what I'm saying is true. It's really easy. It's really easy."
Once again Rangel brags about other insurance company employees he has working for him. "The people who are doing this don't want to leave the insurance companies because they have insurance [coverage] and health [benefits] and the money that they earn with the lawyers because they give us a lot of clients," Rangel says. "It's good for them there. They're well connected."
Being well connected can make a person wealthy, Rangel explains as he gives Rodriguez an impromptu lesson in the merits of networking. She can contact her friends, he suggests, and tell them she'll give them $100 for any cases they pass along to her. She then passes them on to Rangel, collects the $200 fee from him, and splits it with her friend. "You can franchise if you want," he tells her. "You get people to work for you."
All sorts of people come into contact with accident victims, people who could refer cases to her. Rangel offers a few hypotheticals. "You work there [at the insurance company], but say you have a friend who works in a towing company, another in a body shop, another in a hospital, another in an ambulance," he says. "Or if you have a cop that's a friend of yours. I'm just giving you ideas. Use your imagination."
John Askins didn't need to use his imagination when he first heard the tapes of the Rodriguez-Rangel conversations, which began in late 1990 and continued into the following year. An investigator in the fraud unit of the Florida Department of Insurance since 1978, Askins is well versed in the ways of runners. "They've been around for decades," he says. "You can go back to the Fifties, when there were grand juries and investigations focusing on ambulance-chasing attorneys working in cahoots with doctors and medical clinics to solicit primarily auto accident victims. Today they will turn a minor fender-bender into a $10,000 claim. That is really the crux of the problem with ambulance-chasing attorneys and their so-called runners. To keep the money flowing, they turn a very minor fender-bender into a fraudulent insurance claim.
"The key to everything is that this is done on a contingency-fee basis," Askins continues. "You wouldn't be able to talk people into this if they had to pay the lawyer to represent them. We've worked too many cases where we know exactly what they say. The attorney or the runner will tell people, 'Don't worry that you're not injured, we have doctors that will say you are injured. Just go there and you'll make a lot of money. It won't cost you anything and everybody wins.'
"Generally," Askins adds, "if people were really injured, they would go to a doctor first. But we have too many people who go to a lawyer first. And once they get you, the doctors in Miami who will say you have a permanent disability when you don't are literally a dime a dozen. That is what they do. These are not real doctors to us. Your personal physician would not get involved in something like this. It's just a fraud."
In addition to the possibility of fraud, the very act of soliciting a client for a lawyer is illegal. It is a felony in the State of Florida for an attorney, either in person or through an intermediary, to solicit clients. Yet it is an exceedingly difficult crime to detect. "I think the vast majority of solicitations go unreported," states Tony Boggs, director of lawyer regulation for the Florida Bar. "I suspect we don't know how much is going on out there. Most of the time the solicitations occur between two individuals, and that's as far as the knowledge of the solicitation goes. The lawyer isn't about to confess, and most of the time the person solicited is not offended, or at least so offended that they turn the lawyer in."
Worse, adds Askins, the person being solicited is likely to go along with the lawyer's plans. "The overwhelming majority of cases we never hear about," he says. "If the person tells the runner to get out of their face, they don't know to call us. They don't know who we are or where we are. Or the people are successfully solicited and now they are part of the problem. They are going along with making what are usually fraudulent claims. They have a vested interest. And if we approach them, they have been told by their new attorney not to talk to anyone in law enforcement."
Richard Tharp, currently in state prison for insurance-fraud violations, is an old-time Miami runner who says that as long as there are attorneys, there will always be runners hustling up cases for those who are too lazy or too greedy to make an honest stab at practicing law. "It's far more lucrative than advertising," Tharp contends. "Dollar-wise, they get back far more of a return soliciting than they do from advertising. I've worked for people who have become circuit court judges and city commissioners. I've worked for a lot of different people who all became very successful and wealthy. Why would anyone think it was ever going to stop?"
Another veteran Miami runner, who agreed to talk about his experiences if his last name wasn't used, says all types of people get in on the game. "You have cops who will refer clients to attorneys for a fee," explains Raymond. "And who better than a cop? When he approaches a driver after an accident and the driver is disoriented, sometimes the driver will ask, 'What do you suggest I do?' And if the conditions are right, and he can handle it subtly, the cop will say, 'Hey, my brother-in-law is an attorney and if you want to call him, here's his card.' Of course the attorney isn't his brother-in-law; the cop is just working for him. So it can start right there on the scene. Then you have the ambulance drivers. And it can occur right in the emergency room as well. You're sitting there waiting to be treated for maybe a half-hour, an hour, or more because you aren't seriously hurt, and an orderly or an intern comes over and talks to you and gains your confidence."
Usually it doesn't take much persuasion -- even when it might entail lying to the insurance company. "People were usually receptive to it," says convicted runner Richard Tharp. "Most people I guess are kind of greedy and they don't feel it is something so terrible. I've gotten whole busloads of people. I had an [insurance] adjuster that would call me the minute he found out that a Metro bus had an accident. And he would give me the names of the people, and I would then take them to different attorneys. Two or three here. One there. Two there. And collect a finder's fee for each case."
Interview a reformed runner for any length of time and invariably he will have a bus story. "I remember in the old days, when a Metro bus got into an accident. The first thing the bus driver was instructed to do was to lock the doors," Raymond laughs, "because there would be ten passengers onboard at the time of the accident, but by the time the cops arrived there would be 30 onboard, all claiming injuries."
The practice of voluntarily becoming a victim rose to absurd heights during Raymond's prime in the mid- to late Eighties. Because folks couldn't be relied on to get into enough accidents by themselves, the obvious solution was to stage a few wrecks. This was Raymond's specialty, and he never had a problem recruiting people willing to participate. In fact, as word quietly spread, he developed a long list of volunteers. "I'd have people calling me telling me they had a friend who needed money and wanted to do this," Raymond recalls. "And it's easy. Basically you find an isolated area late at night, have the people who needed the money stop in their car at a particular stop sign, and then we'd have a guy come along in a U-Haul and whack them pretty good from behind. U-Haul trucks are perfect for this because they have those big, high bumpers. You wouldn't even put a scratch on those trucks."
Sometimes people inside the car were so nervous they'd wear motorcycle helmets as they waited for the truck to ram them. After the "accident," the U-Haul would take off, and the "victims" would ditch their helmets. "You'd wait a couple of minutes for the U-Haul to leave the scene and then you call the police," Raymond says, adding that in the more than 30 accidents he staged no one was ever seriously hurt. "When we'd rent the truck, we usually did two of these a night. One in one part of town and another across town. Then in the morning we'd return the truck."
Achieving success with such accidents was assured, notes Raymond, when the "victims" were properly insured with United States Fidelity and Guarantee Insurance. Why USF&G? Because Raymond claims he had on his payroll a claims adjuster who would investigate the accident and then authorize payment. Most claims were settled for about $10,000, the maximum the adjuster could approve without involving his supervisors. The money would be divided up this way: The U-Haul driver received $500, the claims adjuster took $3300, Raymond's cut was anywhere from $600 to $1000 for orchestrating things, and the "victims" inside the car would split the rest. (Raymond's staged wrecks bypassed attorneys entirely.) Raymond has no doubt such operations are thriving today. "For every one you put away," he says, "two more get the idea."
Attorneys who solicit clients generally fall into two categories. The first is made up of lawyers and runners who bring in dozens and dozens of minor fender-benders and take the few thousand dollars they can squeeze out of each one. Over the course of a year, these cases can add up to big money. "They work on volume," fraud investigator Askins explains. "And they have to settle each claim as quickly and as hassle-free as possible. You won't find these people at the courthouse; they don't know the way. If something goes to court, they farm it out to another lawyer who is a trial lawyer." Raymond, the former runner, affirms Askins's assessment. "There are attorneys who couldn't survive without people like us," he says. "Tax attorneys, real estate attorneys don't know anything about handling personal injury cases and they rely on their runners to just run the show and then hand them the checks."
The second category consists of attorneys who play the litigator's version of the lottery by looking for one or two big cases a year, cases that will generate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in contingency fees. "We had a case several years ago where a truck hit a school bus filled with retarded children," Askins recalls. "It was up in northern Florida, and a couple of the children were killed and others were severely injured. And these poor family members were hounded by lawyers across the state. Miami lawyers were going up there, calling. They come out of the woodwork on a case like that. It is just ghoulish behavior. They give me the creeps. They're not attorneys, they're vultures."
Not surprisingly, attorneys aren't fond of the term "vulture," just as runners prefer to use other labels. "He doesn't say, 'I'm a runner,' or 'I'm an ambulance chaser,'" Askins says. "He calls himself a paralegal, or an office manager, or an investigator, or a legal assistant." And sometimes he calls himself Dad.
Miami attorney Brett Panter had a unique relationship with the "investigator" in his law office -- it was his father, Norman, an electrician with an abundance of pride in his son and a yen to dabble as a private eye.
On September 10, 1988, when John Wayne Gough was accidentally run over and killed by a street sweeper in North Miami, the elder Panter apparently decided the man's grieving widow needed a good attorney, someone with the skills of his son Brett. In the days following the accident, Norman Panter began his campaign. Looking for leads to reach the wife, Norman Panter contacted the funeral director in Mobile, Alabama, where Gough's body had been flown for burial. Panter also made at least five phone calls to various family members and sent flowers to the funeral service. Finally, during one of his random calls to the house in Mobile, he reached Gough's widow.
According to Leigh Ann Gough, Norman Panter was very mysterious on the phone. He refused to give her his last name, identifying himself as only "Norman from Norman Investigation." He said he was a private investigator and that he had discovered two crucial witnesses to the accident. "He played on that," Gough would later say. "He kept calling and telling us, 'We have somebody who saw it,' and at the time of the accident that was very important to me. I wanted to talk to somebody who had seen my husband when he was killed."
How Norman Panter heard about the case is uncertain, but Gough's family believes he read about it in the paper. Brett Panter would later say his father received a phone call from someone -- though neither he nor his father could recall the person's name -- who was supposedly calling on behalf of the family. The Gough family says that is ridiculous as they had already hired an attorney to investigate the accident.
So brazen and offensive was Norman Panter's conduct that family members decided to set up a sting operation. The family agreed to meet with Panter in Miami to see if indeed he had any information about the accident that neither the police nor their own attorney hadn't already discovered. The family was expecting only Norman Panter to attend, but at the prescribed hour the investigator showed up with his son in tow. (The elder Panter, however, still refused to divulge his last name, and it was weeks before the family learned that Brett Panter was his son.)
According to sworn statements of family members present at the meeting, Norman said he would only reveal the identities of the mystery witnesses if they hired Brett Panter's law firm to handle the case. Brett Panter later contended that even though he was sitting next to his father during the entire meeting, he did not hear this offer. Instead Brett Panter says he made his own presentation to the family; he showed them a binder filled with information about a case he had successfully settled involving the death of an English sailor.
The family was shocked by the scrapbook, which included graphic pictures of the sailor at the site of the accident and a host of financial records. "The pictures upset me," Leigh Ann Gough would later say. She also wondered whether someday, if Brett Panter had become their attorney, he would be passing around a scrapbook with photographs of John Gough's corpse and attached financial records. The book presentation was the last straw. The deceased man's brother got up and began shouting at Norman and Brett Panter. "Why are you sending flowers to my family?" Ray Gough yelled as other family members physically restrained him from attacking the attorney and his father. "Why are you harassing my family?"
At that point Norman and Brett Panter made a hasty exit. And as for the mystery witnesses Norman had supposedly uncovered -- it turned out there weren't any. The family filed a complaint with the Florida Bar against Brett Panter, a former member of the board of directors of the Dade County Bar Association. Nine months later a Bar grievance committee met to analyze Panter's conduct. During the June 1989 hearing, the attorney tried to shrug off the affair as the honest mistake of a father who just wanted his son to succeed.
At one point during the hearing, a member of the grievance committee pressed Brett Panter to see if he understood that it was wrong to attempt to recruit a client by sending flowers to a funeral home. But the attorney seemed less concerned with ethics than with business, given that the family had been angered:
GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: Let me ask you a question. Do you feel the sending of those flowers to that family was inappropriate, by your father?
PANTER: It probably wasn't the smartest thing in the world to do, to get somebody mad at you, I guess. Obviously they are mad.
GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: Do you feel that that's inappropriate behavior on behalf of your father to send flowers to a family that he does not know for someone who has been killed?
PANTER: From what [my father] told me, he had a very nice conversation with [the Gough family on the phone] and he said [he sent the flowers] out of humanitarian reasons. So under those circumstances, no. If he didn't know them or have any contact, yes. But he said he had that conversation.
GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: I don't know how you can say that with a straight face, that it was for humanitarian reasons....
PANTER: Obviously he wanted me to get the case. It's obvious he wanted me to get the case. But I certainly wouldn't tell him to send flowers, I can tell you that.
But business cards were a different matter. Panter acknowledged during the hearing he gave his father free access to the 5000 business cards he had printed.
PANTER: My father is a very gregarious type of person. He can talk to anybody of any race, creed, or color. Anyone -- from a janitor to the president. And he does that and gives them a handful of cards. He gives ten cards to one person. It's not like he gives one card to one person. He gives them out in quantity.
GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: Don't you think that's hustling?
PANTER: It's embarrassing, if you want to know the truth.
GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: It's not embarrassing if you make out 5000 cards?
(Although the matter was never discussed or made a part of the grievance committee hearing, those business cards apparently had a way of turning up in the strangest places. Six months before Gough was killed by the street sweeper, Eugene Rubin, a toll-taker on State Road 836, was struck and seriously injured by an ambulance rushing through the toll plaza. The day after the accident, Rubin's daughter, Judy Schlosser, received a phone call at her home in Massapequa, New York, from a man who identified himself as Norman. "Norman further identified himself as a private investigator and stated that his son was a lawyer," Schlosser wrote in a sworn statement for the state Department of Insurance. "Norman proceeded to tell me how they could handle the case and even offered to pay my plane fare to Florida."
(Within a matter of days, Schlosser flew down from New York on her own. "I came to Miami to be with my father, and either on the first or second day that I saw him in the hospital, I found a business card in his hand," she wrote. "I recognized this card as belonging to Norman and his son and was very upset about it. At that time my father was incoherent and could not have spoken to whoever placed the business card in his hand." When Schlosser tried to discover who had been in her father's room, a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital told her that two men, whom she believed to be attorneys, had been there to visit him.
(John Askins, who investigated Schlosser's claim for the Florida Department of Insurance, later tried to interview Brett Panter about her statement. "When asked whether or not he had a plausible explanation for approaching Eugene Rubin at Jackson Memorial and leaving his business card, Brett Panter stated he would not make any statement whatsoever prior to consulting with a criminal defense attorney," Askins wrote in a report regarding Schlosser's complaint. The next day Askins added, "Attorney Richard Sharpstein telephoned and advised that he represents Brett Panter and Panter will not be making any statements." The criminal investigation against Panter was subsequently closed because of a "lack of sufficient evidence.")
Despite the apparent dismay of the grievance committee over Brett Panter's actions in the case involving Leigh Ann Gough, the disciplinary process against him dragged on for another two years until finally, in March 1991, Panter struck a deal with the Bar in which he agreed to accept what some consider to be the Bar's version of a slap on the wrist A a public reprimand. (See sidebar on page 16 for more details regarding the Florida Bar's disciplinary process.)
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."
Insurance investigators had hoped to set up a face-to-face meeting between Rodriguez and Rangel, but when Rodriguez balked, the Rangel phase of the investigation drew to a close. Now it was time to go after the doctors.
Investigators say they were disappointed when Rangel referred the case from attorney Dennis Brod's office to that of Delgado. Just a few months earlier Brod's name had surfaced in another solicitation probe, this one involving a man who had been involved in one of the largest prosecutions of insurance fraud ever attempted in South Florida.
In 1977 Jeremiah Huff, along with nine co-defendants, including two doctors and one-time powerhouse attorney Anthony Capodilupo, were indicted by a federal grand jury on 188 counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy. According to the indictment, Huff and others would listen to police radio scanners and rush to the scenes of automobile accidents, find the victims, "and encourage them to sign up for Capodilupo to represent them by telling them that they could make some money and that insurance would pay all the bills."
Eventually the prosecutors' case unraveled. By the time Capodilupo's attorneys were done, all 188 counts had been dismissed against both Capodilupo and Huff. But authorities came back at Capodilupo and later convicted him on two counts of mail fraud and conspiracy. In 1986 he was suspended from the practice of law. He is currently an antique dealer in North Miami.
In 1990, more than a dozen years after Jeremiah Huff's original arrest for ambulance-chasing, he once again found himself in trouble with the law. But this time there were no big-name co-defendants and high-priced defense attorneys. He was all alone.
When an automobile accident does not result in physical injury to those involved, a police department may not send a sworn officer to the scene. Instead they often dispatch a public service aide (PSA) to fill out the necessary reports. During the spring and summer of 1990, PSA Veronica Pryor regularly was being sent by Metro-Dade Police to accidents in the predominantly black portion of Dade northwest of the Miami city limits. On at least a dozen occasions that season, she says she saw the same man arrive at the scene of accidents she was investigating. The man would pull aside the victims, talk to them for a few minutes, and then leave. She later checked the license plate number on the man's van and saw the car was registered to Jeremiah Huff. Pryor would also later identify Huff from a photo lineup as the man she repeatedly saw at accident scenes.
On June 14, 1990, Pryor was working an accident when she spotted Huff approaching one of the drivers, a doctor named Laurinus Pierre. Huff spoke to Pierre for a few minutes and left. Pryor then approached Pierre to inquire about Huff. According to investigative reports filed in the case, Huff told Pierre that as a result of the accident he would probably need a lawyer. Huff allegedly handed Pierre a business card for attorney Dennis Brod and claimed that Brod could get him at least $25,000 for the accident. Huff then added that Brod would be expecting to receive a phone call from Pierre as soon as possible.
Pryor reported the incident to her superiors, who in turn passed along the information to state insurance fraud investigators John Askins and Susan Alberti. After several months of interviewing everyone involved, the fraud investigators arrested Huff on November 28, 1990, and charged him with insurance fraud. Investigators had hoped his arrest might lead to information about other potential cases. Askins, in a note to Alberti, instructed her to call the State Attorney's Office and ask prosecutors to "play hardball" with Huff in an effort to enlist him as an informant.
But with a low-level, white-collar felony such as insurance fraud involving only solicitation, the game of hardball, which can be time-consuming, isn't a realistic option for an overburdened State Attorney's Office. And although solicitation carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5000 fine, Huff was instead diverted to "pretrial intervention," a form of probation. If he wasn't rearrested in the near future, the charges against him ultimately would be dismissed. Which is exactly what happened.
Reviewing the final report about the case, Gabriel Mazzeo, a district supervisor with the Florida Department of Insurance, wrote to John Askins: "Very good report. Too bad we can't get Brod."
Dennis Brod is flabbergasted at the idea that anyone would be out to get him. "I have a perfect record with the Florida Bar," Brod correctly states. "I am guilty of nothing. I am guilty of no improper conduct. I'm clean as a whistle." Indignant that his name would even be mentioned in an article about illegal solicitation and insurance fraud, the attorney accused New Times of engaging in the "rankest form of speculation" in dredging up these cases.
Addressing his relationship with Jeremiah Huff, Brod denies he has ever received a case from him. He explains that he once represented Huff in some real estate matters and that he has represented members of Huff's family, but that was many years ago. Brod says he has no idea how Huff may have acquired his business card, or why Huff would drive to an accident scene and hand that card to one of the victims. "Jeremiah Huff was acting on his own," Brod asserts. "I was not implicated in that in any way."
In general Brod criticizes Florida's statutes against soliciting for being "so broadly drafted that almost anything is defined as solicitation." And he argues that accident victims actually suffer because of the laws in that they cannot easily be made aware of the services and attorneys available to them. "Victims of injuries," Brod says, "are really on their own in this state."
Luis Acosta -- in the form of undercover fraud investigator Andy Moya Awas never on his own for very long. After Rangel referred him to attorney Raul Delgado's office, a secretary arranged a medical appointment for him. On January 17, 1991, Acosta made his first visit to Miami X-R Medical Center on Flagler Street in Little Havana.
His first contact at the clinic was with the receptionist, a sweet-tempered, gray-haired, grandmotherly figure by the name of Doris Blanco. (During this and subsequent appointments, investigator Moya wore a hidden tape recorder.) She was appalled when "Acosta" told her the accident had occurred almost a month earlier and he was only now seeing a doctor. The insurance company, she chided, would certainly use that delay against him. She told Acosta she would change his records to indicate that his initial visit to the clinic took place on December 21, just two days after the accident.
Acosta first saw Dr. Octavio de la Osa, an 80-year-old Cuban emigre. When Acosta was ushered into the examining room, the two men talked for a few minutes, during which time De la Osa wrote down basic information about his patient, such as his pulse and temperature A which seemed odd to Acosta, given that De la Osa had not bothered to check either.
"Now I am going to tell you where it hurts," De la Osa explained to Acosta as he showed the patient a chart of the human body. According to investigators, De la Osa then pointed to the neck and back on the diagram and told Acosta: "It has to forcibly hurt here, the neck."
After the initial exam, Acosta met again with receptionist Doris Blanco, who explained that they would also have to backdate any x-rays to show that they were taken on December 21. But again Blanco told Acosta not to worry; she would handle everything. On January 24 Acosta returned to the medical clinic to have x-rays taken. During that visit, Blanco handed him a sheet of paper listing about twenty dates, from December 21, 1990, through January 24, 1991. She told him to place his signature next to each date. This would verify that he had come to the clinic and had received treatment on each of those days.
On March 18, 1991, Acosta visited the clinic for the third time. Blanco again had a sheet for him to sign that listed more than a dozen dates of phony visits he had supposedly made to the clinic. But first she wanted Acosta to review the dates she had selected to make sure he hadn't been out of town on any of them. One time, she recalled, she had listed a number of dates for a client and learned he had been in jail on those days.
Acosta then met with another doctor at the clinic, Guido Alvarez, who asked him how he felt. As recorded by his hidden tape machine, Acosta told the doctor he felt fine and that he wasn't experiencing any lingering pain from the accident, which had occurred three months earlier. Alvarez then went over Acosta's x-ray with him and noted that he couldn't see anything wrong. After a quick check of Acosta's blood pressure and pulse, the visit was concluded.
Less than three weeks later U.S. Security Insurance received a report assessing Acosta's condition. The report, purportedly signed by Dr. Alvarez, indicated that Acosta had been examined six times, when in fact he had made only three visits to the clinic. It noted that Acosta was "evidencing unquestionable limitation in motions from the areas of the trauma." In addition, the report claimed that Acosta suffered a "marked tenderness to palpation over the entire cervical spinous process" and "marked spasms bilaterally affecting all muscles and ligaments; motions painful and limited."
The report, allegedly prepared by Alvarez, further claimed that Acosta complained of pain during the "head compression test," and concluded that "the patient be considered as left with a 5-6 percent permanent partial impairment of the body, as a whole, as the result of his injuries."
Two days after the arrival of that report, the insurance company received a bill from Miami X-R Medical Center for $2920. As Doris Blanco had promised, the bill stated that Acosta's first appointment took place December 21, 1990. And although Acosta actually had been to the medical center a total of three times, thanks to Blanco the insurance company was billed for 39 visits. (Neither Blanco nor Alvarez returned calls seeking comment for this story.)
On May 13, 1991, Acosta called the medical clinic to ask what he should do next. Blanco gave him the name and phone number of another doctor, Pedro Alonso, who would provide a second opinion to corroborate Alvarez's diagnosis. A few weeks later Acosta met with Alonso at his Little Havana office. Acosta told Alonso that at one time his neck did hurt, but he no longer felt any pain. This, their one and only meeting, lasted a total of four minutes.
In his subsequent medical report, Alonso wrote that Acosta "evidenced pain and moderate spasms over the spinous process." Alonso also found that during one test, Acosta complained of pain at the base of the neck, "radiating to the left shoulder." Alonso's diagnosis: "I consider that he will be left with a six percent permanent physical impairment of his cervical spine with loss of whole body functions as a result of his injuries and the fibrosis of the muscles caused by the sprain."
Dr. Pedro Alonso did not respond to New Times's requests for an interview, but his attorney, Ed Carhart, says his client made the best diagnosis possible and that the process of determining a patient's physical impairment can be very subjective. It would be wrong, Carhart asserts, for anyone to second-guess Dr. Alonso's statements or to ascribe sinister motives to his actions.
With Acosta's medical files now in place, his attorney, Raul Delgado, wrote U.S. Security Insurance. Given the serious, permanent nature of Acosta's injuries, he demanded that the company settle the case for $8000. On instructions from fraud investigator John Askins, the insurance company evaluated the claim using its normal procedures. Its counteroffer: a measly $1500. Instead of fighting for more money, Delgado accepted the $1500, despite the medical opinions. Delgado took $500 in attorney's fees and another $140 for his costs. Acosta was given a check for the remaining $860.
The doctors fared no better. U.S. Security Insurance agreed to pay Miami X-R Medical Center a mere $348 of the $2920 it had billed. Likewise, Dr. Pedro Alonso received only $120 for his four-minute examination, rather than the $300 he had requested.
During Acosta's final meeting with Raul Delgado, he discussed with the attorney the unpaid portion of the medical bills. According to a subsequent report prepared by fraud investigator Susan Alberti, "Delgado told Acosta that the doctors could attempt to collect the bill, but that [Luis] Rangel had told him that Acosta had received almost no treatment by the doctors." Acosta then confirmed that he had had a total of only four medical appointments, not forty. Delgado, according to investigator Alberti, responded by noting that "this could be used as a basis for not paying the bill...." (Raul Delgado did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding this article.)
After nearly a year of undercover work, the case that began with Luis Rangel and insurance company employee Patty Rodriguez still required several more months of work while charges were being prepared. Then Hurricane Andrew struck. With only five investigators to probe all allegations of insurance fraud in Dade and Monroe counties, each member of John Askins's squad is often forced to juggle upward of 80 cases simultaneously. The storm and its aftermath piled on more work than they could possibly handle.
Nobody knows better than the bad guys that Askins's office is undermanned. "He just doesn't have the staff," says Raymond, the former runner who asked that his last name not be used. "He didn't back when I was doing this and he doesn't now. And the folks who are still doing this today know that."
"It's very frustrating," says Susan Alberti, a former South Miami police officer who has been an investigator with the division of insurance fraud for five years. "Each one of us could dedicate all our time just trying to go after runners or some other type of fraud case, but we just don't have the manpower or the resources to do that.
"There is this perception that it's a victimless crime because it's not like a robbery or a murder," she adds. "You're talking about an insurance company as the victim, and people don't feel much compassion for insurance companies. But what people don't realize is that it all comes back to us. The insurance companies are just going to raise their premiums to cover their losses."
Those losses, of course, mean that others are making hefty profits. "We've seen these people become very wealthy," says Askins. "And once you start investigating them and get to the point of charging them, the money they have accumulated will buy them the very best defense attorneys in town. It makes it harder and harder to get them convicted. And even then, they are going to get slapped on the wrist, because you don't know what judge you're going to get. They may be standing before a judge who used to be an ambulance-chaser himself. There are certainly judges here who were high-volume personal-injury lawyers and they parlayed that into a lot of money. And money talks and then they become a judge."
Fellow fraud investigator Alberti agrees. "I've had two judges who wouldn't sign warrants in ambulance-chasing cases because they told me they didn't really think it was a crime," she says, though she declines to identify the judges. "I went so far with one that I pulled out the statute and had him read it along with me to see that it was a crime, and he still wouldn't sign it. Some of them don't want to put the ink to paper against a fellow attorney."
This past October, nearly three years after having first spoken with Patty Rodriguez, 41-year-old Luis Rangel was arrested and charged with soliciting clients. At the same time two doctors -- Guido Alvarez, age 64, and Pedro Alonso, 62 -- as well as Alvarez's receptionist, 68-year-old Doris Blanco, were each charged with insurance fraud and grand theft.
Rangel's attorney, Stanford Blake, says his client was merely "puffing, bragging" in his conversations with Rodriguez. "Maybe they weren't the smartest things to say," Blake allows, "but it doesn't make him guilty of a crime."
Nadia Valdes, who is defending Doris Blanco, says her client was simply doing what she was told. "She was just following orders," Valdes claims. "She didn't think she was doing anything wrong. She felt she was authorized to do what she did by the doctors. She's just a nice old lady."
Blanco isn't the only defendant who claims to have been duped. Richard Sharpstein, the attorney for Guido Alvarez, contends his client never diagnosed "Luis Acosta" as having a partial disability, and that the forms from the medical center, which purportedly carried the doctor's signature, were phony. "The evidence will show that he was being used and abused by someone and that he was not part of any conspiracy," Sharpstein argues. "I really don't know who is at the bottom of this."
No charges were brought against the elderly Dr. Octavio de la Osa or attorney Raul Delgado. Investigators say they have no evidence Delgado knew in advance that officials at the medical clinic would allegedly falsify reports.
The trial for the four defendants is scheduled for this spring.
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