Nearly five years ago, we discussed the risk that Ponzi schemes posed to banks and the need for the BSA/AML personnel of the bank to be skilled in detecting the warning signs. The recent judgment against PNC in St. Louis ought to hammer home that point.
A jury in federal court here on Monday awarded $491 million in damages in a civil lawsuit sparked about seven years ago by the collapse of a Clayton-based company selling prepaid funerals.
After a five-week trial, the jury awarded $355.5 million of compensatory damages and $35.5 million in punitive damages against PNC Bank and $100 million more against Forever Enterprises, the latter being a defunct family-owned holding company.
The suit is based upon the “bad conduct” of officers of a company (NPS) that sold prepaid funeral contracts. PNC’s predecessor bank acted as the trustee of the contracts.
NPS promised customers across the country that money from prearranged funeral contracts would be held in trust. Claims were supposed to be funded by life insurance policies payable to the trust. But federal authorities found that company officers and others spent some of the money on lavish lifestyles instead.
Beginning in the early 1990s, liabilities exceeded trust assets, the plaintiffs said, and NPS could pay for funerals only by using cash from new contracts.
More than 97,000 victims — customers, funeral homes, insurers and financial institutions — lost money, federal officials have said.
The officers went to prison. PNC has now taken it in the shorts, financially speaking, although the bank has vowed to appeal. I expect any right-minded financial institution would rather pay lawyers millions to fight a nearly half-billion-dollar verdict than to meekly pay it. After all, you need to send a message to potential plaintiffs’ lawyers that you need to come strapped (again, financially speaking) if you’re gonna’ mess with PNC. In addition, the bank might actually be sincere in its “respectful” position that the jury screwed the pooch (judicially speaking) and that it can win on appeal (even if “win” means paring the size of the verdict down to an amount that won’t choke a Clydesdale).
Regardless of the outcome on appeal, the verdict demonstrates why banks need to be locked and loaded when it comes to spotting potential Ponzi schemes. That might be a harder task in a state like Colorado or Oregon, where recreational marijuana use is legal and all of this stuff gets lost in a cloud of smoke, man, and then….ummm…ahhhh… What was I saying?
Oh, yeah: “Beware the Ponzi” or “Man, that rug really tied the room together.”