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Company that reaped millions from deals with Baltimore’s lead-poisoning victims violated law, Frosh says

05.16.2016

By Terrance McCoy

Washington Post

A Chevy Chase company that reaped millions of dollars from deals with poor, disabled victims of lead-paint poisoning in Baltimore has been accused of committing fraud and deceiving court officials, according to a lawsuit filed this week by the Maryland attorney general’s office.

The civil suit alleges that Access Funding violated state law when it aggressively pursued scores of mentally impaired lead-poisoning victims, persuaded them to sell the settlements they received in personal injury lawsuits for a fraction of their worth and then withheld vital information from the courts that approved the deals.

The agency asked that the Baltimore City Circuit Court order Access Funding to repay the victims the millions of dollars they lost when they sold their settlements — which in most cases were their only assets.

“The conduct that we lay out in the complaint is disturbing,” said state Attorney General Brian Frosh. “It is infuriating. It lays out a strong case that you have people who took advantage of a vulnerable population, who almost by definition are cognitively impaired, and stripped them from the support that would take them through the rest of their lives.”

In all, the vast majority of the 189 transactions Access Funding filed in Maryland between March 2013 and August 2015 involved victims of lead-paint poisoning, authorities said. According to the complaint, the company targeted them with a barrage of phone solicitations, telling them that they had the right to immediately receive a lump-sum cash advance.

The subsequent deals allowed the company to purchase settlements worth $32.6 million, if they had been paid out over time, for $7.5 million, authorities found.

Frosh’s office launched the eight-month probe after The Washington Post published an investigation last year exposing Access Funding’s dealings with victims of lead poisoning. The articles also pointed to loopholes in regulations governing structured-settlement purchasing in Maryland and Virginia. Both states have since passed legislation reforming that industry.

Unlike traditional lawsuit settlements, which are paid out to a plaintiff in a lump sum, structured settlements dispense the income in small increments across decades. To protect someone from immediately spending their entire settlement, lawyers routinely recommend a structured settlement for unsophisticated clients who have been permanently injured. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Baltimore residents who grew up in dilapidated, lead-painted tenements and then sued their landlords for lead poisoning, ultimately receiving structured settlements. The vast majority are African American.

To protect these people from striking bad deals, Maryland, like almost every state in the country, passed legislation establishing a series of protective measures. First, a seller must seek the counsel of an independent professional adviser. The proposed deal then must go before a county judge, who decides whether that agreement reflects the seller’s best interests.

To ensure the integrity of advisers’ counsel, the law says they cannot be “affiliated” with the purchasing company, which can’t compensate advisers for their work. The seller must also be the one to contact the adviser.

One attorney, Charles E. Smith, also named a defendant in the suit, worked as an independent professional adviser for every deal Access Funding filed between May 2013 and June 2015, when The Post started asking questions about his role. And authorities now allege that his relationship with the company violated the state Consumer Protection Act, depriving lead-poisoning victims of a vital protection and deceiving judges into thinking the sellers were more aware of the proposed deals’ implications than they perhaps were.

Smith, according to the lawsuit, is a “lifelong friend and business partner” of Access Funding’s chief operating officer, Raffi Boghosian. He is also an “intimate, longtime friend and business partner” of Access Funding’s attorney, Anuj Sud, who is also a commissioner on the Prince George’s County Board of License Commissioners.

Sud and Smith declined to comment Wednesday. But in an email sent to The Post last year, Smith said: “I have no business partnerships with any company in the structured settlement purchasing industry. . . . My independence is in no way compromised or at risk.”

Access Funding officials didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday. In an email to The Post last year, the company’s president, Michael Borkowski, said: “Access Funding does not have any contractual, financial or business relationship with Mr. Charles Smith.”

But authorities now dispute those claims. The lawsuit alleges that Access Funding, at times, deducted money from its customers’ payments to pay Smith. On two separate deals, authorities say, Access Funding did this to pay Smith and his onetime law partner, Scott Blumenfeld, nearly $4,000, labeling them contingency fees. Blumenfeld also declined to comment.

It’s unclear why Access Funding allegedly paid this money to Smith. “It’s hard to conceive of a scenario in which someone who is supposed to give independent professional advice about these transactions should receive a contingency fee,” Frosh said.

The lawsuit alleges close ties between Smith and Access Funding’s top officials and Sud. Smith and Sud attended the University of Baltimore School of Law together, where classmates recalled their close friendship. “They were good friends,” Michael E. Evans told The Post earlier this year.

After Smith graduated from law school, Maryland business records show, he worked as a registered agent for a business incorporated by Boghosian. Then, when Smith started a realty business, he enlisted Sud as his registered agent. The lawsuit alleges that the three men are “intimate longtime friends and business and real estate partners,” authorities said. Smith later employed Access Funding’s manager of sales in his real estate business, they said.

That familiarity seeped into their communication, the lawsuit claims. Smith, authorities said, acted like an honorary member of Access Funding’s sales team. He was in their fantasy football league and bantered with them over how quickly he could counsel the company’s customers on the implications of deals that could exchange fortunes for pittances. He sealed one in three minutes, court filings say, and Boghosian boasted Smith could advise a young mentally disabled Baltimore resident in one minute.

“Fast boy,” Boghosian once called Smith.

Access Funding associates, emails in court records show, cautioned Smith not to mess up a deal with his advice. One client, an account executive wrote to Smith, involved a “large deal so please handle with care.” At other times, authorities allege, another salesperson “felt it sufficiently noteworthy to advise Mr. Smith that the customer was a ‘normal caucasian woman just a fyi.’ ”

Smith and Sud — who authorities say introduced each other as “my business partner” and posed for pictures together in business suits — soon set their sights on expanding their work in the industry. In an attempt to do some work for another purchasing company, court records say, Smith sent the firm an email assuring them that he and Sud “work together on many of these structured settlements.”

“I am sure,” he added, “you will be pleased with our results.”