Regulators and congress are outraged and appalled, as they always are, at the enormity and longevity of the Madoff ponzi scam. Despite the fact that for years the writing was on the wall, with flashing strobe lights, and at times right in their hands, somehow it was overlooked that Madoff was delivering miraculous returns, using a "trading strategy" that in no way could generate returns of that magnitude for long periods of time in various economic environments, and the auditor of this multi-billion fund was a one-man shop in a strip mall. Huh? I could go on and on, but Madoff is not my point.
The ponzi that should be in the spotlight involves a maze of intertwined companies under the umbrella of Missouri-based National Prearranged Services, including Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Co. and Memorial Services Life Insurance Co., which was relatively quietly forced into liquidation in March 08. Unfamiliar...here's a thumbnail sketch...
NPS sold pre-need funeral contracts through funeral homes in 19 states, over 200,000 contracts nationwide. The pitch is to pre-pay funeral expenses at today's prices and avoid higher inflation adjusted prices later. What did my grandma always say...when it seems to good to be true, it probably is...then she would promptly box my ears for failing to see the obvious.
In a perfect world, NPS would take a percentage of the pre-paid funds and place them in a trust, which is used to buy a whole life insurance policy on the contract holder, which generates interest. When you die, NPS pays the funeral expenses within 24 hours and are reimbursed from cashing out the life insurance policy with interest. The insurance policies are, of course, purchased from their sister companies, Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Services. Keeping it all in the family...
In an imperfect world, a/k/a reality, NPS allows the insurance policies to lapse or cancels the whole life to buy a cheaper, non-interest bearing term-life policy. When you die, they "honor" the old contract with proceeds from new contracts sold. No harm, no foul. Except that you cannot sustain this model, it is illegal and is by any definition a classic ponzi! Aside from the fact that the percentage they are required to put into trust varies by state, with Missouri law allowing NPS to keep 20% of funds in commissions, and of course keep the interest. From the get go, a $10,000 contract is really worth $8,000, allowing consumers the privilege of paying $2,000 in inflation protection. I can feel my grandma's hands coming...
But, like Madoff, NPS operated with a relatively deaf ear from regulators. With it's various businesses...insurance, cemeteries, funeral homes...it fell into one of those gray, murky areas of oversight...insurance? funeral industry? contract law? Like a quick game of hot potato...don't be the last to hold it, or you are the state agency forced to do your job!
NPS was poison from inception. Founded in 1979 by James Douglas Cassity, a disbarred Springfield, MO attorney who served time in federal prison in the early 80's for an unrelated tax shelter fraud. His name rarely appears, instead placing the ownership interests of all of the kissing cousins in various Cassity family trusts and other family members.
FIRST FLASHING STROBE LIGHT
In 1992, the attorney general of MO began investigating NPS, resulting 8 years later in a 2000 court ruling which scolded NPS and told them to tighten up their financial records and make sure proper coverage is in place, with no further or ongoing regulatory monitoring guidelines.
SECOND FLASHING STROBE LIGHT
In 2005, under the cleverly named "Operation Grave Concern", the MO attorney general targeted funeral homes and pre-need contract sellers. A handful funeral directors and contract sellers were charged, and NPS, the godfather of pre-need contract fraud, was harshly scolded for failing to ensure proper coverage in relation to one charged funeral director, and paid an out of court settlement of $10,000 and once again agreed to tighten their financial records, with no further or ongoing regulatory monitoring guidelines.
MORE SPOTLIGHTSIt apparently was not important that according to the National Institute of Money & Politics, NPS ranked in the top 10 funeral industry lobbyists and political contributors, giving around $109,000, much to none other than MO attorney general Jay Nixon and MO governor Matt Blunt. It almost feels like I'm talking about Illinois! Where's Blago when you need him...
In March 08, Texas forced NPS into liquidation, as the two primary insurance companies were headquartered there, noting that the businesses were "inextricably intertwined". Not surprisingly, the Chap. 11 agreement personally exempts the Cassity's and about 50 other entities, including the Nantucket home that Doug Cassity sold last year for over $16M to Google CEO Eric E. Schmidt. In receivership, the unfortunate individual appointed to try to unravel this mess has stated that NPS will honor the existing contracts, but does not state at what value, and the payout will come no later than 60 days of filing the claim. 60 days! That's not much solace for the family who is forced to pony up thousands now for the at-need funeral they believed was paid for in advance, with the pat on the head that they will receive some to all of that money back within 60 days.
Several states, including Iowa, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio are investigating, as is the FBI, who preliminarily have stated the loss at around $500,000,000. And various knee-jerk, sloppy and reactionary pieces of legislation have been proposed, with all of them failing to pass.
And the sordid story continues today...with no conclusion and little to no press coverage. At least they weren't deemed too big to fail.