Con artist pleads guilty in fraud International fugitive relinquishes millions in gold, Swiss francs

December 13, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Globe-trotting con man Martin Bramson, the mastermind in one of America's largest insurance fraud schemes, pleaded guilty yesterday to swindling more than $12 million from thousands of doctors and laundering the money in 588 banks around the world.

The guilty plea ends one phase of the case against Bramson, a Maryland fugitive who was chased throughout Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean by Interpol before being tracked down in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. But the hunt continues for millions more that he may have stashed in foreign bank accounts.

"It's hard to know what still may be out there," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Carmina S. Hughes, who successfully fought to have Bramson extradited to the United States last spring. "I will say that the receivers in charge of recovering the money haven't stopped looking."

As part of his plea agreement in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday, Bramson, a member of Mensa trained as a lawyer and pharmacist, agreed to relinquish nearly $5 million in gold and Swiss francs that he was carrying in Europe at the time of his arrest in January 1995.

The money, still being held by Liechtenstein authorities and the subject of a continuous legal fight, was seized from Bramson's car after he attempted to cross into Liechtenstein from Austria. Bramson, at the time a fugitive, sometimes used the secretive Liechtenstein banks to hide his fortune, court papers said.

Part of the scheme's proceeds helped him open a bar in Ensenada, Mexico, shortly after he fled from house arrest at his Columbia home in 1991, federal agents said. Bramson ran the bar under an assumed name before fleeing to Europe, authorities said.

The 52-year-old Bramson was expressionless and said little yesterday as prosecutors introduced a 22-page statement of facts that portrayed him to be as remarkably crooked as he is intelligent. He faces a minimum of 11 years in prison when sentenced Feb. 11.

Bramson ran a network of unscrupulous insurance companies with his father, Norman, and brother, Leonard -- both of whom were sentenced to federal prison -- in 1980 and 1992, respectively. Using the family's solid educational backgrounds -- Norman Bramson is an optometrist and Leonard Bramson a lawyer -- they set up attractive-sounding insurance plans for high-risk doctors.

"The principal reason for the formation and operation of these insurance companies was to defraud medical doctors and other insureds," according to a statement of facts Martin Bramson admitted to yesterday.

Out of a small Columbia office, the Bramsons promised bargain rates for anyone willing to order policies through a post office box. Soon they sold millions of dollars worth of insurance in 48 states where they weren't authorized to do business.

When claims arrived, the Bramsons often refused to pay them, citing supposed loopholes in the policies. Other times the Bramsons, faced with an insistent policyholder who demanded payment, would close up the insurance company and open a new one under a different name, court papers said.

Rather than place the money from premiums into required reserves for policy holders, the Bramsons moved the money into hundreds of bank accounts in Guam and such countries as Luxembourg, Panama, Israel, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, court papers said.

Court papers said that in one two-year stretch in the early 1990s, more than $43 million was laundered through a bank the Bramsons used in the Caribbean nation of Anguilla. Some of that money, however, was likely the same dollars passing through the bank two and three times as the Bramsons moved it on and off shore, prosecutors said.

"Money was washing through, in and out, in and out," James A. Gordon, the court-appointed receiver who for years has tracked Bramson assets, said yesterday. "It becomes very difficult to determine how much there actually was."

Gordon said he believes that there is still money to be found. But he said he is not optimistic that Martin Bramson will help in identifying any large sums.

Martin Bramson's attorney, William B. Purpura, said yesterday that his client "is going to cooperate in every way he can" as part of the plea deal with prosecutors.

"After all these years, I don't think there's any money left," Purpura said. "But if there is, he will help them find it."

Perplexing is how -- or if -- the Bramsons spent the millions of dollars they made in the scheme. None had obvious expensive tastes for luxury cars or homes, items that white-collar criminals typically buy.

The Bramsons lived in comfortable but not lavish homes in Columbia and were not noted for flashy wardrobes.

Norman Bramson, the 75-year-old father of Martin, spent 33 months in federal prison after admitting to his part in the scheme. He has maintained that prosecutors have exaggerated the amounts of money taken in the scheme.

"It's not that much," he said yesterday of the $43 million figure that prosecutors said the Bramsons sent through the bank in Anguilla. "I'd almost stake my life on it that it wasn't that much."

Norman Bramson had been a fugitive -- living under the alias "Nick Volpe" -- before being prosecuted. He was captured in La Jolla, Calif., in 1993 when several senior citizens, who were his regular dancing partners, turned him in to the FBI after seeing him featured on "America's Most Wanted."

Appearing in court yesterday to see his son, he was immediately approached by the court-appointed receiver and asked to sign an order authorizing the opening of a recently discovered safe deposit box in Switzerland bearing his name. The box, authorities say, is the latest lead in the search for Bramson wealth.

"Let them open it," Norman Bramson said after signing the order. "I have nothing to hide."

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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