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Defense: Alleged cheaters set up

Lawyers say a sting in insurance fraud lured poor people into staging auto accidents.

Published November 1, 2006


TAMPA — The FBI called it “Operation Misplaced Trust,” a far-reaching sting aimed at locking up insurance cheats in the Tampa Bay area.
Intended targets were doctors and lawyers who capitalized on staged automobile accidents to bilk insurance agencies. But eight years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, not a single doctor or lawyer has been charged, according to court documents.

Instead, on trial in U.S. District Court this week is a Cuban who once worked as a janitor for the Tampa Housing Authority and three Haitian immigrants — a cabdriver and two tomato packers.

In opening statements Tuesday, defense attorneys accused the government of preying upon poor people with limited understanding of English and luring them into staging accidents to justify a three-year investigation.

“They focused on a certain sector of the population,” said attorney Richard Escobar, “that sector being foreign, uneducated, impoverished and often desperate for their next meal.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Hansen told jurors the crimes were serious and cost insurance companies thousands of dollars. He said he will call  witnesses who will explain in detail the defendants’ actions.

The consequences for the accused are severe: If convicted, they each could get more than 10 years in prison. One defendant, Alfredo Polo Padron, the Cuban, could be sentenced to 20.

Padron was the co-owner of Tampa Bay Personal Injury Clinic, which was launched by his girlfriend, Elizabeth Caruso. He is charged with four counts of mail fraud and one of conspiracy.

According to the indictment, the clinic billed insurance companies for fake injuries after the participants staged accidents. Caruso accepted a plea agreement and is expected to testify.

The other defendants — Denise St. Fleur, Jean Maxie Ciril and Amos Odin — are accused of participating in the phony accidents. Each is charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of mail fraud.

It started in 1998

Escobar, Padron’s attorney, told jurors the FBI began its investigation in 1998, when it indicted a lawyer and personal injury clinic owner named Michael Sperounes.

Sperounes offered to help the government with its investigation and began taping people he knew were involved with insurance scams, Escobar said.

“He was the hub of staged accidents,” he said. “He knew everyone, and everyone knew him.”

In 1999, the FBI went to the Florida Bar and asked permission for Sperounes to continue taping people, including his clients. Escobar said representatives from the Bar were horrified and told Sperounes to stop or he would be prosecuted for ethics violations.

So the FBI set up its own company to continue the investigation and hired Sperounes to work for it. The company, Trident Venture Group, was an advanced funding company for insurance claims from car accidents, which means it would pay an individual a small amount in anticipation of an insurance settlement. In exchange for the upfront payment, the company receives a larger amount from the recipient after the claim is settled.

Sperounes was never prosecuted and was paid by the government $8,000 a month, or nearly $200,000 during the investigation, Escobar said.

A shift in priorities

Misplaced Trust was halted by the FBI in October 2001 largely due to changing priorities in the wake of the Sept. 11 bombings, said Special Agent William Jones, who testified Tuesday.

This is the third trial spawned by the investigation. The first two also targeted clinic owners and accident participants. Defendants were mostly Haitian and Cuban immigrants.

The trials resulted in four convictions and one acquittal as well as numerous plea agreements.

One of the defendants named in the current indictment, Emmanuel Mellon, fled before trial and is considered a fugitive.

Sharon Samek, St. Fleur’s attorney, said it was Mellon who recruited the other Haitians to participate . She said the FBI relied on Mellon to translate for them because neither of the undercover agents spoke Creole.

Several attorneys argued that their clients would never have been involved if the FBI hadn’t set up the shell company and allowed Mellon to recruit for it.

“You have to justify what you’re doing,” said Daniel Castillo, Ciril’s attorney. “So instead of going after your intended target, you go after something else.”

Carrie Weimar can be reached at (813) 226-3416 or

[Last modified November 1, 2006, 07:07:30]

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