Frankel pleads guilty in $200 million fraud case

Wednesday, May 15th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) _ Martin Frankel, the financier accused of looting insurance companies, including one in Oklahoma, of more than $200 million and using the money to live like an outlaw Hugh Hefner in his Greenwich mansion, pleaded guilty Wednesday to 24 federal charges.

Frankel _ who led authorities on a four-month, international manhunt after fleeing his computer-filled compound in May 1999 _ admitted to 20 counts of wire fraud and single counts of securities fraud, racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and forfeiture.

He could face up to 150 years in prison and $6.5 million in fines, but prosecutors said Frankel had agreed to cooperate and said they would support a lower sentence if he helped recover the missing money. Frankel had faced the possibility of life in prison if convicted at trial.

Sentencing was set for a year from Wednesday. Prosecutors said Frankel was expected to travel later this year to Tennessee and Mississippi to plead guilty to similar charges in those states.

Prosecutors set the total loss in the fraud at $208 million in restitution. To date, prosecutors said, the government has recovered between $70 million and $80 million, including $30 million Frankel told authorities was hidden in a Swiss bank account.

After the hearing, U.S. Attorney John Danaher said Frankel's sentence will depend a great deal on his future cooperation.

``The book is not closed in this case. We'll continue to work on it. Those involved in it should not rest, because we won't,'' Danaher said.

Appearing pale and gaunt, Frankel answered politely ``yes'' or ``no'' as he was led through the plea agreement by U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns.

His defense lawyer, Jeremiah Donovan, said afterward that Frankel is ``a very contrite man.'' Donovan admitted the government had ``a real ton of evidence'' against Frankel.

``I sure hope he's a free man one day,'' Donovan said.

Frankel was accused of gaining control of small insurance companies in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee and stealing cash from the company reserves.

In Oklahoma, Frankel is accused of taking $4 million from the Farmers and Ranchers Life Insurance Co., which survived after a state insurance fund replaced the money.

He ran the insurance empire from a two-mansion compound in Greenwich and spent the money on private planes, luxury cars, expensive wines and gifts for women he met through personals ads and other means. Neighbors said Frankel sometimes wandered the property in his pajamas.

He fled the country May 5, 1999, leaving behind piles of smoldering documents. Among the papers, authorities said, was a to-do list which included as item No. 1 ``launder money.''

Also discovered was an astrological chart intended to answer the pressing question, ``Will I go to prison?''

Four months later Frankel was discovered in a hotel room in Hamburg, Germany, with nine fake passports and 547 diamonds. He spent 18 months in a German prison and was extradited to the United States in March 2001, a few days after a failed attempt to break out of the German facility.

Three accused coconspirators charged in the Frankel indictment are awaiting trial: aides Mona Kim and Sonia Howe, and accountant Gary Atnip. Another aide, German national Kaethe Schuchter, is wanted by the FBI.

An Italian monsignor with ties to the Vatican is also accused of trying to use his connections to launder stolen insurance company money through a bogus charity Frankel set up.

Msgr. Emilio Colagiovanni is charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Under an agreement with prosecutors, he is being detained in the United States and is living with a cousin in Ohio.

State insurance regulators are seeking more than $600 million in damages from Frankel in civil cases, and they have sued the Vatican, alleging the church was involved in Frankel's schemes.

The federal lawsuit, filed last week by the commissioners of Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, accuses the Vatican and Colagiovanni of racketeering and fraud.

The Vatican has denied any involvement in the scheme. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Wednesday that at the time of the alleged scheme, Colagiovanni was a retired priest no longer holding any Vatican office and was acting ``as a private Italian citizen.''