How macabre financial opportunity turned into $1.25 billion fraud
Mutual Benefits Corporation ex-trustee sentenced to 10 years
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A decade ago, an orchestra, minuet dancers, acrobats, magicians and tarot card readers entertained about 500 Mutual Benefits Corporation's guests at the Hyatt in Fort Lauderdale.
Lawyers, doctors, purchasers of life insurance policies, and globe-trotting brokers had plenty to celebrate. They were betting on death and getting rich, while helping the terminally ill and elderly to live their last years more comfortably.
The party's tarot card readers did not warn that behind the Venetian Ball's masquerades were company executives who were juggling to keep up with their lies. They had bet on AIDS patients' fast deaths but medical advances were helping them live longer.
Mutual Benefits offered a "financial product" that was "unaffected by the day-to-day volatility of the bond and interest rate markets" and offered 12 to 72 percent returns when the terminally ill or elderly life insurance policy holder died.
Prosecutors said former company trustee Anthony M. Livoti was disbursing investors funds to pay for insurance premiums on other policies, as part of a $1.25 billion fraud. Livoti turned down a three-year plea deal. And on Tuesday he was sentenced to 10 years for fraud and conspiracy on three major felony counts.
More than 29,000 investors worldwide were caught in the web that the Steinger brothers, also known as Steiner, expanded aggressively from 1994 to 2004. Agents from as far as Vienna, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Bogota and London traveled to Fort Lauderdale to attend "MBC's Viatical University."
"Visiting agents receive a first-class, education on what viatical and life settlements are, how to sell them properly, and why we feel that they are a terrific alternative," a company 2003 newsletter read.
The dozens of court cases related to Mutual Benefits even involve Colombian Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leadership and drug cartel members who were using the company's financial products to move millions of illegal drug dollars.
As an attorney who was standing on the right side of the law, Livoti was an ideal associate. Before his involvement with the Steingers, his reputation was untarnished.
Livoti was the first recipient of the Mutual Benefits Corporation Humanitarian Award in 2003. The award was meant to recognize "the outstanding achievements of those individuals who consistently and tirelessly give back to the community."
As a well-known litigator, Livoti's dedication to helping young lawyers earned him a Florida Bar pro bono award nomination. He also worked for the Fraternal Order of Police and lectured at the police academy on deposition and trial testimony.
Livoti first gained recognition as an attorney in the 90s when he represented Club Body Center, a bath house in Miami involved in a highly publicized case. Health officials and AIDS activists wanted to close the facility, as State Attorney Janet Reno's office alleged the hub for gay unprotected sex was not safe for the public.
Livoti and the Steinger brothers were supporters of CenterOne, once the largest community health center to help AIDS and HIV patients in Broward. They also helped to raise funds through the Art for AIDS Auction.
Everything collapsed when the FBI uncovered the Steingers' lies.
In 2004, the Securities and Exchange Commission claimed that of the active policies, 90 percent had surpassed life expectancy. About $4.5 million was transferred from one of Mutual Benefits' premium escrow accounts to another in order to cover shortfalls, the SEC May 3, 2004 complaint said.
Livoti and many former employees claimed they did not see the fall coming.
But not many knew that Joel Steinger was banned from commodities trading for his involvement in the Tara Petroleum Corporation fraud in 1989. And not many knew that he had learned plenty from the masterminds of the Crown Colony Commodity Options Ltd. fraud.
An anonymous blogger alleging he worked for Mutual Benefits for seven years, posted employees were treated like royalty during company parties. And even after an alleged company employee's murder, the blogger said he was grateful to have worked for the Steingers.
"I owe it to them," posted the anonymous blogger in 2009. "They treated me fair and in my eyes I felt they were conducting a good business."
The company's macabre marketing motto turned into a reality for the Steingers, who left Brooklyn for Hallandale Beach when they were teens.
A few years after the Securities and Exchange Commission froze Steingers' assets, Leslie Steinger died of pancreatic cancer.
After a sentencing Feb. 7, Steven Steiner, 61, also known as Steven Steinger, was serving 30 years in prison. Fifteen years were for conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and another 15 for money laundering and various obstruction of justice offenses.
Joel Steinger, 64, suffers from a chronic back ailment and can't control his bowel movements or bladder. On Friday, he plead guilty to charges of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. His sentencing is June 6.
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