Insurance probes keep Md. family under siege

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Norman's oldest son, Martin, a 45-year-old former pharmacist in Washington, also ran afoul of the law in his money-making efforts. In 1981, he was convicted of selling cocaine and Dilaudid, a prescription painkiller, worth nearly $600,000.He served more than a year in prison and at a Baltimore halfway house.

Martin and Leonard, both trained as lawyers, became key figures in the family's insurance businesses, according to federal prosecutors.

The two younger sons, Ronald, a 38-year-old podiatrist, and Carl, a 32-year-old doctor, were also involved in the businesses, according to court documents. Norman's daughter, Phyllis Bramson Marin, 41, played a lesser role in the business, according to the suit.

Over the last decade, court documents allege, the Bramsons created a network that includes four insurance companies offering medical malpractice, asbestos removal, pollution liability and marine policies.

They promised a bargain

To lure customers, the companies offered a bargain.

For example, International Bahamian placed ads in medical journals promoting low malpractice rates. Claiming to offer savings of 20 percent, the company attracted plenty of customers willing to order policies through a post office box.

In selling those policies, however, the companies were defying basic rules. Insurers are required to obtain licenses in each state and put millions of dollars in reserve to protect policyholders, but the Bramsons' companies didn't do that. Instead, they argued that because they were based offshore, they were not bound by regulations in the United States. State judges disagreed.

Soon, the tales trickled in from those who claimed they were cheated.

Dr. Donald W. Montgomery, a Texas podiatrist, sued International Bahamian after it failed to defend him in a $1.5 million malpractice suit. He was awarded $17.5 million in his suit against the insurer. Still trying to collect, he has filed a second suit against the Bramsons.

A woman in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., couldn't collect $730,000 in malpractice damages from her podiatrist, who was also insured by International Bahamian.

The Bramsons managed to elude the growing posse pursuing them by hiding their businesses, hiding their connections and hiding their money, federal prosecutors allege.

Many customers, armed only with the number of their insurer's post office box or answering machine, couldn't even find the business. If they managed to discover the company was on a faraway island, they got little help. Most of the islands are regulatory havens with strict secrecy laws.

Stonewalling

State regulators and angry claimants, trying to prove their cases in court, have been stonewalled.

When they did show up, the Bramsons were uncooperative.

Norman Bramson, under questioning by Illinois regulators, denied knowing who owned International Bahamian, though documents list him and his family as the only shareholders. In a deposition in Texas, Leonard Bramson refused to answer dozens of questions. He cited attorney-client privilege, bank privacy laws or memory lapses.

The Bramsons have camouflaged their control of the businesses, which has made it difficult to blame them for misdeeds, regulators say.

But regulators are confident that the Bramsons run the businesses. In court documents, federal prosecutors claim that the Bramsons acted as company officials but used aliases.

And Leonard Bramson told a Texas prosecutor last year that he often serves as treasurer because "he who controls the purse strings controls the companies."

Those purse strings have kept the money moving. Cash from the businesses has traveled through banks in Luxembourg, Switzerland, Panama, the Virgin Islands, the Netherlands, Canada, Anguilla and throughout the United States, according to bank records, canceled checks, depositions, U.S. Customs agents and federal prosecutors.

And with the money flowing, grabbing it is a cumbersome process under international banking law. The swift series of transactions discouraged most of the Bramsons' pursuers from even trying.

Formidable target

Regulators also lack legal tools. Because they lack broad interstate legal powers, they could only order the Bramson companies out of the state for being unlicensed.

Maryland ejected them. So did Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, Kansas and 20 other states -- sometimes more than once. Regulators issued more than 40 orders demanding that one alleged Bramson company or another stop selling policies. Nothing worked. Company officials ignored court orders, skipped hearings and refused to pay fines.

In Texas, Fred I. Lewis, an assistant attorney general who has chased the operation for nearly two years, obtained four court orders, a contempt-of-court ruling, an arrest warrant and fines of $10,000 a day in his battle against CARIB and Trans-Pacific. Last May, he won damages of $2.4 million. Within days, he learned the operation was back selling policies in Texas.

Only since last year have state officials succeeded in getting federal investigators interested in the Bramsons. Now, with the indictment in New Jersey and the Maryland court order barring the family from selling malpractice insurance, investigators hope they can begin to unravel all the mysteries of the operation.

Unraveling mysteries

Regulators know the insurance businesses have taken in millions of dollars over the years; they have little evidence that much money has been paid out for claims. So where is it? Over the years, regulators have gotten some clues: $5 million in Luxembourg, about $5 million in Canada, $1.1 million in Los Angeles, more than $1 million in Maryland and $1.2 million in Chicago.

At a detention hearing for Martin Bramson Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey R. Garinther said the Bramsons have repatriated money from their overseas accounts by bringing in gold coins called Krugerrands, gems and cash.

The prosecutor said that when Martin Bramson's home in Columbia was searched Thursday after his arrest in connection with the New Jersey indictment, federal investigators found more than $10,000 in cash and 100 Krugerrands valued at $30,000 to $40,000. FBI agents also found a cache of weapons -- three loaded handguns under his water bed and a submachine gun and rifle in a bedroom closet.

Mr. Garinther argued before U.S. Magistrate Catherine C. Blake that Martin Bramson should be held without bail pending his transfer to New Jersey. The judge delayed her decision until Tuesday; he will remain in Baltimore city jail until then.

The indictment accuses him, Leonard Bramson and Mr. Berkle of helping to take over Preferred Indemnity Insurance Co. in New Jersey and operating it illegally. If convicted, Martin Bramson faces up to 185 years in prison and more than $9 million in fines. Mr. Berkle faces up to 80 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Leonard Bramson, who was arrested Thursday at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport, is being held pending a court hearing this week. He could receive more than 180 years in prison and more than $9 million in fines if convicted.

And Norman Bramson, who is free on bail, is to be sentenced soon in Detroit on the conviction stemming from his 1986 arrest on currency violations. He pleaded guilty to the charge in Michigan last month and faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines, according to federal prosecutors.

"They're a rather magical, mystical group of people," said Tristam T. Schnepper, a regulator in Illinois, which has chased the operation for a decade. "It's all in the family."

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