The Grift of Gab

Stephen Tashman made a small fortune launching Telecard Dispensing Corporation. If only his investors had been so lucky.

Apparently Ana Skwierc thought the same. After working at TDC for almost two years, Skwierc and five other employees banded together and paid a visit to the Florida State Attorney's Office shortly after TDC closed its doors in January. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see what was going on," says Skwierc, who eventually was pointed by state attorneys to the FBI and the FTC.

Skwierc knew of a plethora of TDC customers who were furious because they didn't have locations and their calls weren't returned by company managers. "I didn't get any calls from people saying they were happy," says Skwierc. She recalls one investor who drove from New Mexico to Hollywood, Florida, to demand his $28,000 investment back from TDC and another customer from Chicago who Skwierc says lost his life savings. As far as Skwierc knows, neither man was reimbursed.

"I felt bad for the distributors; I knew they got so ripped off because of the way they pumped up sales right before they closed," says Skwierc, who sometimes ran sales reports for Tashman when one of his assistants was unavailable. She says she regularly saw TDC's sales income reach $300,000 to $400,000 per day. She and other employees say that, in December of last year, a month before the company ceased its operations, daily sales often hit $500,000, with Tashman scrutinizing every cent.

A bad connection: Investor Daryl Joiner trusted TDC with thousands of his dollars
Chuck Bigger
A bad connection: Investor Daryl Joiner trusted TDC with thousands of his dollars

"[He] was everyone's boss," says Skwierc, who adds that Tashman opened and closed TDC and was present every day, even during hurricanes.

"He knew everything," she says.

The FTC calls Skwierc, Brouri, and Roquet to the stand on the same day, as well as former customer Joiner. Skwierc seems subdued, tired of recounting the same story she's told over and over to state and federal officials. Brouri evokes the Fifth Amendment in response to more than one question. He tells the court he's afraid of incriminating himself, because, Tashman's recently filed a lawsuit against him for allegedly stealing TDC's customers and dollars. When asked about the lawsuit's charges, Brouri shouts his response: "That's a lie!"

Roquet fields questions from the defense with verve. When attorneys quibble over her not remembering the exact type of briefcase that once contained $2 million and was brought to her by Tashman, she pulls herself up, places one hand on each broad knee, and stands her ground. "What exactly are you asking me?" she retorts. The defense lets the point go.

Skwierc and Brouri leave after their testimonies, but Roquet remains, along with Joiner and Blake, to observe the rest of the day's proceedings. The three cluster together in the back of the courtroom during an afternoon recess and swap stories. Roquet sits with her pocketbook in her lap and tells the men how much she paid references per call. Blake laments the $750 worth of defunct phone cards he still owns.

"We got stuck with those too!" says Joiner. He rests his arm around his wife's shoulders, his Medic Alert bracelet dangling from his right wrist. None of them ever met before today; now all three share an unexpected camaraderie founded on their experiences with TDC.

The FTC estimates that Americans dump approximately $40 billion per year into telemarketing scams, and the FBI estimates that approximately 14,000 illegal telephone-sales operations swindle U.S. consumers every day. Cons are worsening in some ways because of a largely unregulated variable: the Internet.

So what kind of retribution can the federal government seek from businessmen like Tashman? According to an FTC attorney, one or a combination of three punishments: injunctive relief, the posting of bonds, or consumer redress.

Injunctive relief should prohibit a defendant from deceiving additional customers or engaging in any future con. Although the FTC possesses a tracking system to monitor compliance in these kinds of judgments, defendants habitually slip through its cracks. Tashman did. In court documents the FTC recounts how Tashman ran TDC even though he was under two separate judgments incurred during his reign at Atlantex and Junction Financial Corporation.

The second type of relief comes in the form of a bond, a heavy bit of bail posted by the defendant who wants to engage in a specific kind of venture. Bonds can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on a defendant's past pattern of deceptive behaviors and unfair conduct. The FTC claims that many violators view these monies as out-of-pocket expenses, the price of conducting business any way they see fit. And Tashman's pockets might run deep. The FTC estimates that, during its three-year investigation of TDC, the company sold its machines to at least 3000 customers for a total of $32 million. The sum doesn't include investors who were loaded with extra machines, the additional sales of phone cards, or sales figures for TDC's last year of business.

A final form of judgment could be consumer redress, financial restitution to some of TDC's customers. It's unlikely. TDC was sold to Rock Sound Communications in January of this year, three months before Tashman's trial. Two weeks after the sale, Rock Sound filed for bankruptcy, although the previous month of December was prosperous, with sales peaking to half a million dollars per day. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court found the filing suspect. The court's documents claim that, in the 18-day period between TDC's sale and Rock Sound's bankruptcy filing, not a single business activity transpired that indicates any real transfer of assets took place between TDC and Rock Sound. TDC workers even recall Tashman informing them that he'd continue to run the company after the sale.

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