For seniors on a fixed income, it seemed like a good deal: trade in their real estate annuities or property for a steady stream of cash that would convert to a charitable donation when they die — and get a tax write-off to boot.
But the Securities and Exchange Commission charged in Miami federal court that We the People Inc. was a scam. The SEC said in a civil complaint that most of the money went to commissions and salaries for the couple who ran the Tallahassee-based operation.
Attorney Melanie Damian, the court-appointed receiver in the case, said unlike most scams, this was halted before most of the money was spent.
"They were looting. They just didn’t have the opportunity to loot it fully," Damian said Tuesday. "This is really a huge credit to the SEC that they can catch this one in time."
She said We the People’s senior executives, Richard and Susan Olive, were named in a federal fraud indictment in Tennessee in March 2012 for allegedly running a similar scheme, National Foundation of America. This prompted the SEC to begin the investigation of We the People, ultimately leading to the receivership order to shift control of its assets to Damian.
She said the scam was complex and netted the Olives $1.1 million a year in salary plus commissions. The couple got involved in 2008, and the SEC shut it down last April. It attracted $75 million from 400 investors in 30 states.
Potential investors were pitched by mail and phone to sell their commercial annuities, sometimes real estate and even cash accounts to We the People in exchange for a tax-deductible gift annuity. The idea was the investor could get a future source of income, donate to a charity and get a tax write-off all at the same time, according to the SEC complaint.
The SEC said the Olives made several false claims to investors. Investigators charged the gift annuity, carried by insurance companies, was worth less than the value investors were promised.
Damian said that even though We the People was registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a charity, it did not do enough to help the needy to qualify as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Damian said she visited the Tallahassee shelter operated by the company. "It looked like it was doing some good when I went there on Friday, but there were six people there with a $250,000 annual budget," she said.
A lot of the money taken from investors can be recouped, Damian said. The idea is to sell the company to a legitimate foundation or charity that can then manage the gift annuities, she said.
If We the People were liquidated, she said less money could be recouped and there would be tax implications for the investors.