Mastermind burns evidence of world's biggest insurance swindle

IN THE "back-country" of Greenwich, Connecticut, where stone walls and wooden fences hide grandiose mansions and swimming pools, they are used to people protecting their privacy. Even so, the comings and goings at number 889 Lake Avenue had already been stirring curiosity when, on 5 May, the fire engines roared up its drive to investigate a reported blaze. Since then, residents here have talked about little else.

No one was at home when the firefighters turned up. What they found were bonfires of documents in two of its stone fireplaces and a filing cabinet smouldering in the kitchen. Other documents had been shredded and were lying about.

The fire officers were baffled, but when the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation finally turned up, they saw something extraordinary. The papers appeared to be incriminating flotsam of a securities and insurance swindle that may turn out to be the biggest in American history.

Exactly what was committed at Lake Avenue nobody yet knows. It does not help that its owner, a certain Martin Frankel, whom neighbours had rarely seen, has seemingly evaporated into thin air. At the very least it is claimed that, through an investment company run from the house, he bilked 11 insurance companies in five different states out of nearly $1bn (pounds 625m). Also missing is $1.9bn allegedly entrusted to Mr Frankel by a Catholic charity he set up, the St Francis of Assisi Foundation.

"It's amazing, but the amount of missing money is still growing," Maurice Nissen, who has been hired by the foundation to track down the money, said last week. "We're talking up to $3bn." Several of the insurance companies stung by the fraud have folded for lack of traceable assets.

Investigators did not have to search far to realise something was amiss. Among the documents they found was a "to-do" list that allegedly began: "Launder money." According to a court affidavit filed by the FBI in Bridgeport, Connecticut, agents also found astrological scribblings by Mr Frankel. Questions asked of the stars included: Will I go to prison? Will Tom turn me in? and Should I leave?

All of Mr Frankel's dealings - it is claimed he used Frankel plus several aliases - were apparently steered through his investment company, Liberty National Securities. Because he had had his licence to act as a broker withdrawn several years ago for violating US securities trading laws, the company was not listed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The stone house, bought last year for $2m, had a living room that resembled a big bank's trading floor, agents have testified. He had fibreoptic cables, satellite dishes and 80 computers.

The FBI affidavit contends that Mr Frankel, since 1991, "devised and executed a scheme to defraud by wire several insurance companies across the country". The affidavit describes how one $44m chunk of money was wired first to two banks in the United States before landing finally in a bank in Switzerland.

The missing charity money took a little longer to come to light. Investigators believe that Mr Frankel established the St Francis foundation in the British Virgin Islands last August as a screen for millions of misappropriated dollars. With respected members of the church appointed as its trustees, the foundation gave the $1.9bn to Mr Frankel to distribute to different charities. But he never did. And all the money, the assets of the insurance companies, as well as Mr Frankel himself, are nowhere to be found.

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