Swiss box may hold defrauded money Funds that Bramsons took are still missing

October 14, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Still hoping to find a hidden treasure trove somewhere, attorneys representing those who were swindled by a Maryland family in a huge insurance scheme have located a safe-deposit box in Switzerland that they hope holds some of the stolen proceeds.

The box at the Kantonalbank in Zurich is listed as belonging to Norman Bramson, who was convicted of mail fraud in a 12-year scheme of fraud and secret off-shore banking that bilked millions from doctors. Bramson's son Leonard was also convicted in the fraud, and his son Martin is awaiting trial.

Prosecutors have seized roughly $10 million but speculate that more money is hidden in about 600 bank accounts around the world. The safe deposit box in Switzerland is "just one of 600 possibilities," said James A. Gordon, a lawyer who is trying to get a court order to open the box.

"I believe there's still lots of money out there," said Gordon, whose firm, Maryland First Financial Services, has been appointed by a judge to hunt money hidden by the Bramsons. "But as for this box, I don't have particularly high hopes. Funds that were in it were probably moved" by the Bramsons.

Martin Bramson, a Columbia resident believed to have masterminded the scheme, was arrested in the European nation of Liechtenstein in January 1995 after a worldwide manhunt. He had with him $3 million worth of Swiss francs and $225,000 in gold bullion that Gordon says Martin Bramson probably withdrew from banks while he was on the run.

Martin Bramson is awaiting trial on federal charges of mail and wire fraud.

Norman Bramson, who had been a fugitive before he was arrested in the upscale San Diego, Calif., suburb of La Jolla in July 1993, spent 33 months in federal prison for his part in the scheme. Now 74 and living in Jessup, he said he had no idea what was in the Swiss deposit box.

"All I know is the Swiss Embassy sent me two decrees written in German, apparently saying they were going to force open the box if I didn't turn over the keys," said Norman Bramson, who showed the letters to a reporter. "I don't have anything to hide. I didn't even know the box was over there. I don't have any keys."

Norman Bramson said his son Leonard -- serving a nine-year federal sentence for trying to launder between $6 million and $10 million -- was responsible for opening offshore bank accounts. Court papers say Leonard Bramson did serve in that capacity, hiding money that the Bramsons collected in insurance premiums from doctors in 48 states.

Prosecutors say the Bramsons used their legal and medical expertise -- Norman is an optometrist, Leonard a lawyer and Martin a lawyer and pharmacist -- to create a network of insurance companies offering bargain-priced medical malpractice and other insurance coverage.

When claims arrived, the Bramsons usually refused to pay them. Court documents show they set up bank accounts in such places as Caribbean islands, Luxembourg, Panama, Israel, Germany, Guam and the Netherlands.

Recovering the money has proved difficult, because much of it is deposited in countries that have strict bank secrecy laws and won't readily cooperate without an account holder's permission. Often the only way for U.S. authorities to investigate accounts in those countries is through court order, which means they must hire attorneys based in those nations to act for them.

Given the hundreds of bank accounts that Gordon says his firm has discovered, it is difficult to know which ones to pursue because many of the accounts are believed to be red herrings.

"We have leads that emerge from time to time, but the question is, what's the cost to pursue it?" Gordon said.

He said the latest lead in Switzerland appears promising because the deposit box is in the name of a Bramson, in contrast to the myriad aliases that the family used in other countries.

Norman Bramson said prosecutors have seized all the money and nothing is left. He said he is living on a Social Security pension.

"I keep hearing this talk of millions," he said. "There are no millions."

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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