Insurance probes keep Md. family under siege

September 15, 1991|By Peter H. Frank

He never knew the Mounties were watching.

The bald, bearded man in the tweed jacket followed his weekly circuit through Windsor, Ontario. He stopped at the National Bank of Canada, walked two blocks to the Royal Bank of Canada and then caught a bus headed for the border.

Tipped off by the Mounties, U.S. Customs agents in Detroit pulled him aside. In the pockets of his sports coat, they found envelopes bulging with twenties, fifties, hundreds. The man had claimed to be carrying $4,300. Instead, agents counted $73,225.

On that day in May 1986, federal investigators say, they were introduced to an international insurance swindle and money-laundering operation that has taken in millions of dollars from thousands of people. At the center was Norman Bramson -- the man caught sneaking money into the country -- and his five children of Columbia, Md., federal prosecutors contend.

Last week, a federal judge in Baltimore ordered the Bramson family and an attorney, Dennis Simon of Ellicott City, to stop selling malpractice insurance. The judge's order also froze bank accounts tied to businesses that prosecutors claim are operated by the family or Mr. Simon.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury in Newark, N.J., indicted Leonard A. Bramson and Martin A. Bramson -- Norman Bramson's oldest sons -- and an insurance broker, Warren H. Berkle Jr. of Ellicott City, on charges of mail and wire fraud, and money-laundering. The brothers were also charged with extortion.

For more than a decade, four insurance companies that federal prosecutors link to the Bramsons have battled customers, confounded lawyers, frustrated regulators and infuriated judges. One or another of the companies have been kicked out of Maryland and at least two dozen other states, warned, fined and sued. All the while, they've flourished.

Prosecutors say the companies' success was simple: The policyholders paid premiums; the insurers rarely paid claims.

A Cleveland man who lost his left leg below the knee found that out after winning a $450,000 medical malpractice suit. He had the bad luck to have a doctor insured by International Bahamian Insurance Co., which won't pay the money. That company was created by the Bramsons, federal prosecutors charged last week in Maryland.

And a Maryland woman's family can't get her podiatrist's insurer to pay a $600,000 malpractice settlement for misdiagnosed cancer. The podiatrist who treated the woman, who later died, has been unable to collect the money from his insurer, also International Bahamian.

"These are sophisticated con artists," said John A. Donaho, Maryland's insurance commissioner. "They're fakes. They're selling nothing for something."

Maryland regulators in a lawsuit describe the two newest companies allegedly controlled by the Bramsons -- Casualty Assurance Risk Insurance Brokerage Co. (CARIB) and Trans-Pacific Insurance Co. -- as among the nation's "most notorious" insurers.

The Bramsons say they have done nothing wrong. Martin Bramson's lawyer, Joseph P. Kennedy, said Friday that the New Jersey indictment was "fraudulent" and that his client "absolutely denies" the charges.

Mr. Berkle, reached at home Friday, declined to comment.

Attempts to reach the Bramsons and Mr. Simon, a lawyer who has worked extensively with the Bramsons, were unsuccessful late last week. But the Bramsons' defense has been well-documented.

They have denied any connection to some of the companies federal prosecutors contend they secretly run. They say some of their policyholders didn't follow the rules and therefore shouldn't collect claims. They argue that they have been harassed.

The Bramson family

"No one is talking nice to us," Leonard Bramson, 44, said in a deposition in a Texas regulatory dispute last November. "Everyone is trying to steal our money and break our company's back through conspiracy and cooperation."

The Bramsons appear unlikely targets for all the allegations.

Norman Bramson, 68, and his five children are trained as lawyers or health professionals: doctor, nurse, optometrist, pharmacist, podiatrist. They show few signs of high living or fancy tastes. Transplanted from Chicago, they live in comfortable condominiums and expensive, but not lavish, Colonial homes in tree-lined Columbia.

Norman Bramson has always sought a sure payoff for himself and his family. An optometrist, he became a salesman when he discovered that a Fuller Brush man could make more money, according to his son, Leonard.

He has sold appliances, real estate, cars, pharmaceuticals, insurance. "I would get into . . . whatever field where I could feel I could make more money," he said in a 1983 deposition, part of a lawsuit related to a now-defunct, family-owned pharmaceutical company.

Those ambitions led to trouble.

In 1964, a Chicago judge shut down a wig business run by Mr. Bramson and some partners after they ran fraudulent ads claiming their $450 wigs were made from the hair of European girls entering convents. In fact, the wigs were Asian hair, worth only $49.95.

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