Criminal courts

Radio Ponzi scheme targeted Florida’s Haitian Americans

 

Authorities say Philippe Bourciquot used Creole-language radio to scam victims out of millions of dollars.

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Philippe Bourciquot, in court Wednesday, August 20, 2014, is accused of running a Ponzi scheme targeting listeners on Haitian radio.
Philippe Bourciquot, in court Wednesday, August 20, 2014, is accused of running a Ponzi scheme targeting listeners on Haitian radio.
WALTER MICHOT / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

In the world of Florida’s Creole-language talk radio, where hard-working Haitian Americans tune in by the thousands, Philippe Bourciquot pitched the lure of easy money.

He boasted that money “loaned” to him would be plunged into foreign trade markets, 18 countries in all, for massive returns. “You give me $20,000, it is guaranteed that for the year you will receive 60 percent,” Bourciquot told listeners in one July 2013 broadcast.

On another show, Bourciquot invoked civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, then asked listeners to dip into their retirement funds: “You bring that money, I will make it work.”

And in all of his broadcasts, Bourciquot appealed to a deep national pride, invoking the names of Haitian revolutionary heroes, promising profits that could rebuild a nation battered time and again by tragedy.

“Apple, that’s worth several billion dollars, we can do that too,” Bourciquot said in one October 2013 broadcast. “If every Haitian embraces what I’m doing, other nations will say Haitians have a business that’s worth several billion dollars.”

The grand plan, authorities say, was nothing but a sham — a Ponzi scheme that sucked $3.1 million from the wallets of his countrymen and women. For two years, the Lake Worth businessman paid investors with money from new investors, all while using a huge chunk of the money to pay for a house, luxury cars, hotel stays, airplane tickets, car repairs and restaurant meals.

Newly released evidence in the criminal case against him offers a detailed look at the alleged scam while offering a window into how con men use the pay-to-air system of Creole-language radio broadcasts to prey on poor Haitian Americans in Florida.

Simone Passe, a mother of six from West Palm Beach, told the Miami Herald she invested $20,000 with Bourciquot after hearing him on the radio. He was paying her 4 percent interest monthly. Indeed, financial records show, he paid her back — but only $2,700.

“Bourciquot helped me!” Passe wailed. “He is now in the jail. I can’t pay my rent for my children.”

In Florida and on the island nation, talk radio has long been a powerful medium, with on-air buzz deciding elections, spreading political intrigue and serving as an invaluable source of news.

Like Bourciquot, many of the radio hosts pay for the airtime, giving some crooks a platform to lure in victims. His case follows an all-too familiar pattern.

The most notorious Ponzi schemer is Wellington businessman George Theodule, who earlier this year was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison for bilking $30 million out of Haitian Americans in Florida in 2007 and 2008. He is believed to have actually stolen more than twice that amount using radio spots to attract victims.

In 2010, federal authorities arrested four people in a Ponzi scheme that bilked about $8 million from 600 investors. Pitching through Haitian churches and radio spots, the Miami group offered 15 percent returns on one-year investments in a company known as Focus Financial. The group is now in prison.

In yet another Ponzi scheme, Florida prosecutors in 2010 arrested three people who used radio and TV spots to lure 200 investors to a sham company called Gen-X. The ringleader, Alix Charles, of Miami, pleaded guilty and is still paying back $300,000 in restitution.

“Radio has been ingrained in our culture, and these rogues prey on that,” said Miami lawyer Phillip Brutus, a former state legislator and longtime weekly news show host on WLQY 1320 AM. “They’re targeting the poor, downtrodden people.”

In another high-profile case, North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau was arrested in May, accused of using her radio program to recruit “straw” borrowers to purchase 20 homes while defrauding $8 million from various mortgage lenders. She is awaiting trial.

State agents arrested Bourciquot, 46, in June. Prosecutors in Miami-Dade have charged him with a host of felonies, including racketeering, grand theft, money laundering and fraudulent transactions. He intends to fight the charges, said defense lawyer Bernard Cassidy.

“We’re gathering all of the facts so we can present our case to the court,” Cassidy said.

The latest probe began in November 2013, when an anonymous person lodged a complaint about radio spots in which Bourciquot claimed to be a “leader and benefactor in the Haitian-American community,” according to an arrest warrant.

The tips came into Dimitri Bernadotte and Neptime Dieujuste, both Creole-speaking investigators from Florida’s Office of Financial Regulation. They teamed up with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Statewide Prosecution.

They soon found that Bourciquot had no license to work in securities trading, and his financial background was littered with irregularities.

He had to pay $15,000 as part of a judgment against one of his Palm Beach companies, while the Internal Revenue Service had twice filed liens against him totaling over $700,000. A bank had also foreclosed on one of his homes.

They also learned Bourciquot had spent over $54,960 since November 2012 buying spots on at least three different radio stations in the South Florida market. He also had started three companies: Freedom Property, Economic Movement and Options Yes.

Bourciquot pitched his investments as “personal loans,” backed by an insurance policy and a thriving business and investment portfolio.

But a detailed look at his financial records showed the radio host “did not have any assets to secure any of the investors’ loans,” according to an arrest warrant prepared by prosecutor Stephen ImMasche.

Some of the money was indeed wired to trading firms, domestic and overseas. But in opening his accounts, Bourciquot lied about his net worth — claiming between $1 million to $5 million, according to the arrest warrant.

In all, investigators identified more than 300 investors, most of them from Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties. In what agents say is a classic Ponzi scheme, he paid at least $1.4 million back to investors, the money coming from new investors.

The rest of the money Bourciquot spent for himself, while hiding at least $640,000 in overseas accounts, according to the arrest warrant.

To help build their case, investigators devised an undercover plan. In February, investigator Bernadotte called Bourciquot posing as an investor with $30,000. In secretly recorded calls, they agreed to meet the following day at a parking lot in Lantana.

Outfitted with hidden audio and video recording devices, Bernadotte insisted that he was concerned about the security of Bourciquot’s investment opportunity. The radio host agreed to show him his nearby house.

At the house, Bourciquot proudly showed off his gym equipment — and even did some pushups. The undercover agent noted commercial radio equipment in a home office, believed to be used for illegal broadcasting.

Bourciquot insisted he could provide a 50 percent return, provided he get the money for at least two to three years,

The two then drove to a strip mall, where Bourciquot showed off an office he claimed was going to be his business hub. No deal was made — Bourciquot refused to allow the agent to take a “promissory note” document with him because it belonged to his business.

“This is the Haitian system,” he told the agent. “I don’t know you.”

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

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