I am not proud to admit this, but it is a fact and common knowledge for many years. In the mid-’80’s I perpetrated a Ponzi scheme. I did it without the knowledge of my wife, my business partners, in fact, no one knew until…
The outcome. Total financial ruin. The loss of many of the relationships I held dear. The loss of my career. And, yes, a Prison sentence. But, what about my spouse. In the early ’90’s when I agreed to plead guilty there was never (to my knowledge) any consideration that anyone would be prosecuted other than ME. But now some 20 years later with what seems a proliferation of Ponzi scheme perpetrators – well – times they are a changing.
An article in the South Florida Sun Sentinel summarizes it well:
Now those years of comfortably basking in money are gone, replaced by lawyers’ questions and the scorn of former friends. Their posh lives had been built on their husbands’ schemes.
Call them “The Real Housewives of South Florida Ponzi Schemers.” Among them is Boca Raton mother Victoria Meisner, whose husband, Michael, masterminded a $37 million fraud.
Her story, however, is different from that of most of the other wives. For like her husband, she’s a convicted felon. On Friday, she found out she will be going to prison.
Victoria Meisner, 53, was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for filing a false tax return. She pleaded guilty in November to reporting $49,626 of total income in 2003, despite helping rack up more than $430,000 in personal expenses that year on a debit card belonging to her husband’s business, Phoenix Diversified Investment Corp.
Meisner’s case highlights one of the inevitable questions for authorities investigating Ponzi schemers and how they threw around their ill-gotten gains: Should family members whose luxurious lifestyles were funded by dirty money face criminal charges themselves?
Back to reality… I was convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion. One I stole money from my clients in a Ponzi scheme fashion and two, I didn’t pay taxes on stolen money. Yes, the IRS can put you in prison for things like that. But, the more important question that people often asked of me was – “What did you do with the money?” My response was – “Look around.”
Like so many fraudsters (can’t say I like that term, but it fit at the time), I lived, for my community a lavish lifestyle. As I look back I have often wondered if people, including my wife and business partners, didn’t know or at least wondered. It seemed in the late ’80’s that what ever I wanted I got. BMW – Mercedes – Jaguar – BMW – Airplane, etc. The “boy toys” were big and for the most part far more expensive and lavish than others I was connected with had. Likewise, what my wife wanted she got. Nice home, custom window treatments, fine furniture, and if that weren’t enough – another much finer home under construction. We had it all (by out community standards)…but it was all an illusion!
FOR THE RECORD: My now, ex-wife, had no clue. I was a master illusionist. I profoundly regret the pain I caused her and am indeed thankful for the grace and dignity she maintained in continuing her life and being the extraordinary mother to our children she has and continues to be.
Now…some 20 years later comes the Meisner case which opens a new and potential frightening door that heretofore seems to have been closed. SPOUSAL PROSECUTION!
John Gillies, head of South Florida’s FBI office, has called the Meisner case “a cautionary tale to spouses that they cannot claim ignorance about their financial situation when they know better.”
Defense lawyers who specialize in white-collar crime agree that just because a spouse or family member isn’t actively involved in a fraud, it doesn’t mean he or she is safe from criminal prosecution.
“Willful blindness in the criminal system is tantamount to actual knowledge if there are sufficient red flags to alert an individual that criminal activity is afoot,” said Sharon Kegerreis, a Miami-based attorney and former federal prosecutor.
Among those warning signals: a sudden, unexplained influx of wealth into the household or curious patterns of moving money between bank accounts.
Looking back – could my wife explain our sudden increase in wealth? If you looked at our lifestyle and the lifestyle of my partners, was there a difference and how could that be explained? And, why was it that when I got a call to deposit money into our account for a purchase that my wife made, I had to consistently transfer money between accounts? The tell tail signs were there. But no one (not the least of which ME) wanted to look. I created a grand illusion and all was comfortable – and who wants to disturb that comfort?
While most wives (this assumes that crimes are committed by men – which is not always true), do not get prosecuted…there is a growing trend to bring a new level of accountability to bear when it comes to protecting the victims of crime and punishing those who perpetrated the crime.
In the Victoria Meisner case – she was not convicted of the actual Ponzi scheme, but rather for filing a false tax return. (Once again the IRS becomes a successful tool when it comes to busting fraud).
“I knew that my family and I maintained a lavish lifestyle well in excess of the ‘total income’ reported,” she acknowledged in a sworn statement last November.
Somehow I imagine that she regrets ever speaking those words – cause those are the words that put her in federal prison.
But what of her husband – well…his sentence is around the corner. Michael Meisner pleaded guilty in September to mail fraud, loan application fraud and tax evasion. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 19 in West Palm Beach federal court, and faces up to 30 years in prison under sentencing guidelines.
FOR THE RECORD…I am not in any way proud of my past acts. I often, as a speaker today, am asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you do it?” Frankly, I chuckle at that question that arises over and over. The answer, “NO!” But, with that said, I cannot change my past, yet I can use the incredible lessons learned and hope that being open, honest and willing to share them might help others in their life journey.
I speak to audiences all over North American and one thing that is a common theme – EVERY CHOICE HAS A CONSEQUENCE! In this case, perhaps it is now time to consider that consequences can arise from failing to look and be aware just as much as they are from being on the front line of the crime.
YOUR COMMENTS WELCOME!