RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The head of a Costa Rican company charged in a $670 million insurance fraud scheme lied to investors about the firm's financial assets and stability, a federal prosecutor told a jury Monday. But a defense attorney said the government's evidence is lacking.
The jury heard opening statements in the trial of Minor Vargas Calvo, who is charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. The trial is expected to last several days.
Vargas was president and majority owner of Provident Capital Indemnity Ltd., which agreed Friday to plead guilty to a single count of mail and wire fraud conspiracy.
Provident sold bonds guaranteeing funding for life settlement companies, which buy life insurance policies from insured people at less than face value and collect the benefits when those people die. The government says Provident sold bonds worth $670 million based on fraudulent financial statements from 2004-2010, with $40 million going directly into the company's bank account.
"This case is about lies," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry told the jury. He said Vargas told investors that Provident had hundreds of millions in assets that had been verified by an independent auditor, and that it had "reinsurance agreements" providing an extra layer of protection - all of which was untrue.
"The bottom line is it's a crime to lie to get people's money," he said.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Everhart reminded jurors that the government must prove every allegation beyond a reasonable doubt.
"When all the evidence is in, you will have heard evidence that directly contradicts what the government says today," Everhart said. "We think the government will fail to carry their burden."
Jorge Luis Castillo of Hackettstown, N.J., a certified public accountant who conducted a sham audit for Provident, pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud and agreed to cooperate in the case against Vargas. Castillo faces up to 20 years in prison when he is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 5.
Provident also awaits sentencing on Sept. 5. The company faces a maximum fine of $500,000 or double the amount it collected from any victim of the offense, plus full restitution.
The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil complaint against Provident last year, and a judge froze the company's assets and enjoined it from doing business. The company's plea agreement was signed by the court-appointed receiver in the SEC's enforcement action, as well as the federal prosecutor and Provident's attorney.
The life settlement market began in the late 1970s, when AIDS patients sought to sell their life insurance policies for cash to pay for treatment, experimental drugs, and for routine bills when they lost their jobs.
In recent years, the market has focused mostly on older people without life-threatening diseases, but who no longer need or want life insurance or who need to cash in the policies for a fraction of the death benefit.