By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
It should work well for everyone. But that's not the way it worked with United Benefits. The company fell under scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission because its owner, Zane Balsam, had been barred from dealing in securities after misleading investors at another company. In 1995, the SEC shut down United Benefits Group for good when it discovered that the firm had sold more than $4 million in insurance policies that didn't exist.
The United Benefits case should have served as a cautionary tale. But for Joel Steinger, it served as inspiration.
If his past proved anything, it was that he loved a good scam. He'd earned a felony conviction in 1981 for ripping off investors and had been fined and banned from selling securities by the SEC in other cases. He sold bogus commodities and fake diet pizza, among other scams. And he had a great criminal pedigree, as he learned at the feet of the late mobster Meyer Lansky.
As the United Benefits mess showed, the viatical industry was already rife with fraud when he entered it. Steinger, though, was primed to take a "death benefits industry" scam to new heights.
Steinger opened Mutual Benefits in a two-story white-columned building on Oakland Park Boulevard in 1994. The SEC had barred him from trading securities, so Steinger wasn't listed on corporate documents. He called himself a "consultant" to the company and propped a childhood friend from New York, Peter Lombardi, into the role of president of the company. He had two prominent Fort Lauderdale attorneys, Anthony Livoti and Michael McNerney, handle the business accounts.
Federal and state court records claim Steinger made up false life expectancies and had shady doctors rubber-stamp them. In classic Ponzi-scheme style, he used money from new investors to keep up with the premiums on the old policies. At the same time, he siphoned off tens of millions of dollars for himself and his brothers, Steven and Leslie, who helped him pull off the scam. The life insurance holders were paid and Steinger and his associates and sales agents certainly made a lot of money, but the investors — most of them elderly and unsophisticated — were often stiffed after being promised returns ranging from 12 to 72 percent.
The SEC and state regulators opened an investigation into Mutual Benefits within a few months of its opening and soon found that Steinger hid his true ownership of the firm, failed to tell investors about his troubled past, and misled them about what they were buying.
One of the key questions then — and one that would be disputed in and out of court by Mutual Benefits for the next decade — was whether viatical contracts were securities that needed to be licensed and registered or simply insurance products. The answer to that question was crucial not only because Steinger wasn't allowed to deal in securities but also because if they were defined as securities, they would be subject to much more stringent regulation.
In 1998, the SEC settled its case with Steinger and his brother Leslie without answering that question. The brothers agreed to pay a fine totaling $950,000 and promised not to violate anti-fraud laws again. The fine wasn't much to Steinger; Mutual Benefits raised $100 million during its first two years of business alone.
Failing to shut down Mutual Benefits at that time would prove a disaster for investors around the country. Steinger, even then a known financial predator, was able to win this favorable result in part thanks to his well-heeled attorney, Ben-Veniste, a friend of the president at the time, Bill Clinton, who had served as general counsel for the Senate Democrats during Whitewater and would later sit on the esteemed 9/11 Commission.
Ben-Veniste told the Sun-Sentinel, which published a short article about the 1998 settlement, that the company "refunded or exchanged all investor funds when it recognized the problem," and an SEC attorney remarked that it didn't appear any investors had lost money.
That rationale is strongly reminiscent of mega-swindler Bernie Madoff's claim to the SEC when he was investigated in 1992. The SEC determined that two of Madoff's top lieutenants, Michael Bienes and Frank Avellino, who both had strong Broward ties, were selling unregistered securities. They were hit with fines, but Madoff was allowed to stay in business because it was alleged that no one had actually lost any money.
Both Madoff and Steinger financially ruined thousands of people after wrist slaps from the SEC. But Steinger couldn't have been nearly as effective a swindler as he was without access to AIDS patients who were willing to sell policies to Mutual Benefits. To get that access, Steinger simply started the largest AIDS clinic in Broward County — and that put him in charge of millions of Medicaid dollars. The fun for Steinger was only beginning.
When you're buying insurance policies from people suffering from AIDS, you need access to sick patients. That's why Steinger set out to corner the market on AIDS services in Broward County.
When it first opened for business, Mutual Benefits started a nonprofit called the Viatical Benefits Foundation that was run by Steinger's brother, Steven, a gay man who used his contacts in the gay community to further his brother's agenda. The foundation donated money to AIDS clinics and provided help to sick people, but it was all in the name of snapping up insurance policies to sell.