Baltimore County bouncer turned businessman is in the fight of his life

In the wake of his company's collapse, Jeffrey Cohen sits in jail, awaiting a court battle over hefty accusations

  • Jeff Cohen, founder of the Indemnity Insurance Corp., is pictured at his home.
Jeff Cohen, founder of the Indemnity Insurance Corp., is pictured… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
July 19, 2014|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

The nightclub insurer promised to fight for its clients — its promotional material shows a man socked in the face with a boxing glove.

But founder Jeffrey B. Cohen fights everything. He went after competitors, clients, former employees and even neighbors, filing dozens of lawsuits around the country. The Reisterstown man once sought a restraining order to keep a rival company from attending an adult industry convention.

Now Cohen, 39, faces the biggest fight of his life — his company, Indemnity Insurance Corp., was seized by regulators, and federal agents said in court documents that he appears to have been plotting to attack a judge. The fallout is rippling across the country, buffeting the thousands of bars, nightclubs and strip joints Indemnity once insured and leaving injured patrons with unpaid claims.

"The devastation is huge, it really is — it's just huge," said Jan Trendowski, a Connecticut attorney who defends bars against claims.

Delaware regulators say Sparks-based Indemnity had a policyholder deficit of $9 million — despite claims of a substantial surplus — when they stepped in last year. Regulators allege that Cohen created an email address and opened a P.O. box in a bank's name in order to fake documents that made it appear the company had more assets than it did.

Federal agents arrested him in June on charges related to that alleged scheme. As they raided his house the same day, according to court documents, they found more evidence to back up the claims of fraud — and items of an entirely different nature.

Agents said they uncovered an arsenal of weaponry, disguises and "survivalist gear." A notebook detailed plans for what appeared to be a plot to harm the judge in the Delaware liquidation case and an elected official, while a recording Cohen made on an apparent "reconnaissance" mission to that state justified killing as a necessity that few could understand, according to court documents.

Those findings have not led to additional charges.

His court-appointed attorney declined to comment. Cohen told agents he was writing a novel.

His whole life reads like one.

A bouncer's rise

A former nightclub bouncer, Cohen started insuring businesses in that industry around 2001. As the business grew, he amassed a house on the water in Florida, three in Maryland and too many vehicles to fit in his four-car garage in Reisterstown — including an Aston Martin owned by his company and a Lexus SUV with the vanity plate "RISKTKR."

He told company auditors his net assets exceeded $43 million, according to court documents.

Clients stretched from Florida to California, including the publicly traded Rick's Cabaret chain of gentlemen's clubs. Indemnity had 4,000 policyholders before regulators stepped in, court documents said.

"It gobbled up a lot of the market," said Brad Sharon, director of marketing and sales at Fairmont Insurance, a New York insurance broker that specializes in that niche — and is among the many that Cohen sued over the years.

Indemnity grew fast by charging substantially lower premiums and advertising that it would aggressively defend customers from lawsuits.

"The reason we're a very successful company is because I'm a fighter," Cohen told The Baltimore Sun in January, after his company was seized but long before he was arrested. "I fight claims better than any company out there — that's why we're so profitable."

Indemnity also paid independent insurance agents and brokers far higher commissions than the industry standard, giving them an incentive to sign clients up, said Pike Barber, owner of Hospitality Insurance Agency, a Florida company that connects nightclubs and other businesses with policies.

Barber said Cohen pitched him on Indemnity's policies six or seven years ago. Barber's team took a look, had concerns about the long list of exclusions — such as claims involving a thrown bottle or other "flying object" — and sent Indemnity questions that went unanswered, he said. Barber took a pass.

Tony Carastro, another Florida insurance agent, was also skeptical. When Cohen flew down for a meeting, he wanted to talk about cars and connections and didn't seem to have a grasp on the fundamentals of the industry, Carastro said. He said he had concerns about Indemnity's published financials.

"This company could be shut down very soon and it's going to be a [mess] when it happens," he wrote in a 2009 email that was filed as evidence in a lawsuit.

Now the companies that did sign on with Indemnity for liability coverage are "out on their own," Barber said. On judgments against them that Indemnity was supposed to pay. On lawsuits that Indemnity was supposed to defend them against. On claims that might arise later but date to when Indemnity insured them.

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