State officials are launching an investigation into a Bel Air insurance broker charged with embezzling more than $2 million from at least 10 people over the past seven years, Maryland Insurance Commissioner Steven Larsen said yesterday.
The charges also prompted Larsen to begin an internal review of how the Maryland Insurance Administration handled complaints about Wade N. Willey, who was indicted last week by a Harford County grand jury on charges of theft and misappropriation.
At a bail review hearing yesterday, prosecutors portrayed Willey as a persuasive man who preyed on the elderly and used church organizations to recruit investors in what they characterized as a fraud similar to a pyramid scheme.
"It's very tragic," Assistant State's Attorney William G. Christoforo told Circuit Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr. "People put their life savings in with Mr. Willey. People in the later years of their lives who are in ill health and who need the money now, no longer have it because of Mr. Willey."
Willey, 50, has been in the county Detention Center since his arrest Saturday. He was indicted by a Harford County grand jury on 49 counts of theft and misappropriation and yesterday failed to post the $150,000 bond set by Baldwin.
In issuing the indictments, the grand jury also criticized state insurance officials for their handling of a complaint about Willey by a former employee in February 1996, saying "no attempt was made to audit for misappropriation of funds."
State officials said an initial two-month investigation conducted at the time showed no evidence of a crime.
Larsen, who became state insurance commissioner in June 1997, said yesterday, "I'm extremely concerned about the comments attributed to the grand jury. I'm going to be doing a thorough investigation and review to determine exactly what we did and what we looked at."
Maryland State Police and the county state's attorney's office began their investigation a year ago after people who invested in Willey's companies filed complaints against him.
Willey's businesses in Bel Air included Wade Willey Wade Insurance Agency, Access Financial Network and Agency Systems Inc.
Investigators accused Willey of being involved in a pyramid-like scheme in which people received monthly interest payments on their investment, which was paid with money taken from new investors.
Bonnie and Darrel Comer of White Hall in Baltimore County thought they were investing in Agency Systems Inc., which Willey set up to finance insurance for high-risk drivers.
"[Willey] was very good to us for a long time," said Bonnie Comer, 61, who said the couple was introduced to Willey by their minister about eight years ago. "Every month, he'd write us a check for how much interest our investment earned. Then, about two or three years ago, the checks stopped coming.
"To be downright honest, I can't say what he did with our money because I really don't know," said Comer, who declined to say how much she and her husband lost. "I think he saw a way to make money real quick, and it just didn't work.
"He said he wanted to pay us back. I really doubt we'll see any of it again."
Although the Comers are among the 10 investors named in the indictment, prosecutors believe more people invested with Willey. Christoforo said he heard from someone in Monkton yesterday morning and said Willey advertised his businesses in the Harford County Directory and posted a Web address to recruit people.
"He always has a story, and he's a very persuasive man," Christoforo said of Willey, a father of two, who grew up in Aberdeen. "Through all the patterns of investments and all the vulnerable people , he certainly is considered a danger to the community."
In asking for a reduction in bail, defense attorney Francis D. DeMuro pointed to three rows of friends and family who showed up in support of Willey, saying "he has long-standing ties in Harford County. Mr. Willey is a very Christian man, a very religious man. He has no prior convictions."
Willey, a balding man wearing jeans and a green shirt with his hands shackled to his waist, spoke.
"I knew this investigation was going on for some time but I was willing to face anything that might come from it because that's the type of person that I am," he said. "If I really wanted to flee, I could have done it already. I know God wants me to work this out."
Baldwin, who presided over the hearing, reduced the initial $200,000 bail to $150,000.
Willey is also charged with two counts of filing false Maryland income tax returns and one count of failing to file a Maryland tax return. Each felony theft charge could result in a maximum 15 years in jail and $1,000 fine.
Pub Date: 1/13/99