Pop Music Manager Goes From Living Large to Living at Large
Brains Behind Boy Bands Steals Millions From Seniors in Pyramid Scheme, Now on the Lam
By RUSSELL GOLDMAN
April 16, 2007
By all accounts, Lou Pearlman, the millionaire pop music mogul who virtually invented boy bands, has led a charmed life.
It was his charm, investigators say, which helped him to bilk more than 1,400 people out of hundreds of millions of dollars in a classic pyramid investing scheme.
Pearlman is now at large, and his whereabouts remain unknown. His alleged victims -- some of them now destitute -- are left to wonder how they were taken by the man who created and once managed the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.
"I lost everything," said John Spears, an 80-year-old, wheelchair-bound veteran who invested his life savings, some $200,000, in what he was led to believe was an insured interest-bearing savings fund.
According to Florida state officials, Pearlman swindled people out of $317 million and, more surprisingly, bilked banks out of an additional $150 million.
That money allowed him to lead a lavish lifestyle. Pearlman owned a Rolls Royce Phantom, a Gulfstream private jet and a 15,000-square-foot Florida mansion.
State and federal investigators, as well as lawyers for the alleged victims, say Pearlman and his associates sold investors, many of them senior citizens, phony securities which he called an "employee investment savings account" through his company Trans Continental Airlines Inc.
In numerous documents obtained by ABCNEWS.com, Trans Continental assured investors that their money was insured both through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the well-known insurance brokers AIG and Lloyd's of London.
By offering reasonable interest rates, investors did not initially believe they were being scammed, lawyers for the victims say. Some initial investors were paid quarterly with money invested by new investors. Others, like Spears, "never saw a dime."
"It was clever how he did stuff," said Robert Persante, a Florida lawyer who represents eight people -- including Spears -- who accuse Pearlman of fraud. "He would advertise to senior citizens and say he was FDIC insured but he wasn't and couldn't be."
"He'd charm people with his showbiz connections ... He even gave some people paraphernalia from the boy bands," Persante said.
"Mom and pop see FDIC in an ad and they are conditioned to trust that. People were disinclined to ask an attorney because they thought, 'Do I really need to, if this is FDIC insured?'"
"Only, the FDIC doesn't cover con artists. It only covers the failure of federal lending institutions," Persante said.
The Florida Office of Financial Regulation, which initiated the investigation, has been unable to contact Pearlman since he left the United States in January 2007.
On Feb. 1, 2007, Pearlman sat in a theater in Berlin and watched as his latest boy band, the German sensation US5, received a Goldene Kamera Pop International Band award.
Within days of his band receiving that award, perhaps the last triumph in Pearlman's career, a Florida judge had appointed a receiver over Trans Continental's few remaining assets. Within weeks, FBI and IRS agents stormed the company's Orlando offices.
"It was a Ponzi [fraudulent] scheme," said Robert Rosenau, chief of financial investigations for the Florida Office of Financial Regulation.
"Money invested with [Trans Continental] was diverted elsewhere to shore up his other companies," he said.
In an emergency court motion filed yesterday, Soneet Kapila, the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, wrote that Pearlman had shuttled money among more than 100 companies from AC Productions to Zeppelin Restaurant.
"The trustee also has reason to believe that the debtor [Pearlman] utilized many of these business entities in the perpetration of the 'ponzi' scheme alleged by creditors and the state of Florida, and/or funneled monies from the 'ponzi' scheme through many of these business entities," Kapila wrote.
"When someone invests outside a regulated industry, they need to do due diligence," said Rosenau. "There are a lot of resources. There are many places to determine what is [insured by the] FDIC."
Monty Montgomery, a 67-year-old retiree living in St. Petersburg, Fla., learned about those "many places" the hard way.
Montgomery said it was not until he read an article about Pearlman in a September issue of the St. Petersburg Times that he bothered to check with the FDIC and learned the federal agency did not protect his investment.
In promotional materials obtained by ABCNEWS.com, Trans Continental promises that "Your investment is 100 percent insured. The FDIC shall cover up to $100,000 and Lloyd's of London shall insure up to $1,000,000 @ account."
In other documents (note the fine print), including a brochure given to new investors, the company said, "All funds shall be insured under FDIC standards with Lloyd's of London coverage."
As early as 1999, Lloyd's of London learned Trans Continental was using its name to promote sales of securities and contacted Pearlman, telling him to stop.
Pearlman wrote back to Lloyd's explaining that a Trans Continental agent "mistakenly relayed incorrect information," and he included a letter supposedly sent to investors explaining and apologizing for the mistake.
Montgomery said that when he began investing with Trans Continental in 2006, he was told the FDIC, Lloyd's and AIG would insure his investment.
Montgomery was among the estimated 3 percent of investors who actually saw an initial return on their money.
Spears, the disabled veteran, never got any money back. When he tried to withdraw $20,000 of the $200,000 he invested to give his children as Christmas presents, he was told on several occasions he would have to wait.
Pearlman, he said, called him personally to apologize for the delay and promised he would soon get his money. He never received anything.
The FBI would not discuss the details of their ongoing investigation. However, Kevin Farrington, an FBI spokesman, confirmed the bureau "participated in a search warrant at Pearlman's residence and business several months ago in an effort with several other agencies."
Farrington said he "can't get into where [Pearlman is overseas]," but that "generally, we work with international law enforcement agencies if an investigation moves overseas."
Pearlman was last seen in Germany. Calls to Triple-M Music, the Berlin-based company that manages his band US5, were not returned.