In an Amish village, the SEC alleges a Madoff-like fraud
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 12:56 AM
The personal assets of Monroe L. Beachy, a 77-year-old Amish man, included a horse, buggy and harness. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, his skills included financial fraud.
Beachy spent a quarter-century raising $33 million from more than 2,600 investors, the overwhelming majority of them fellow members of the Amish community, which often shuns modern conveniences such as automobiles.
But Beachy's investment approach allegedly had more in common with the timeless methods of Charles Ponzi and Bernard Madoff than with the sheltered village of Sugarcreek, Ohio, where he lived. When the SEC charged him with fraud on Tuesday, it said he had lost nearly half of his investors' money.
In a telephone call Wednesday, Beachy declined to comment in any detail, saying, "My attorney advised me not to discuss it with anyone." When pressed, he added, "Of course it was not intentional." Beachy's lawyer did not return a call.
According to the SEC, Beachy started raising money as early as 1986. He assured investors that they were earning money from safe U.S. government securities, while enticing them with higher returns than they could get from banks.
In an echo of Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme, Beachy issued periodic statements to investors showing the funds purportedly available to them, including accrued interest, according to a court filing.
Starting with a 10th-grade education and some classes from H&R Block, the tax-preparation company, Beachy built up such trust that Amish parents encouraged their children to invest, too. The investors included a school cookbook fund, a school capital fund and a Mennonite church.
Along the way, Beachy became treasurer of the Amish Helping Fund, a nonprofit that takes in money from investors and makes real estate loans "in an effort to preserve the Amish way of life," the group said in a court filing. Beachy put some money in the Amish Helping Fund, which entrusted him with an even larger sum of $2.6 million.
It all collapsed in the middle of last year when Beachy filed for personal bankruptcy. It turned out that he had been running a Ponzi scheme, a bankruptcy trustee alleged, and that he had put the money into speculative investments such as stocks, mutual funds and junk bonds.
As early as July 1998, Beachy was insolvent, but he continued to solicit investments from new investors to repay earlier ones, the trustee said.
Though many Amish steer clear of modern technology, some of the money Beachy raised ended up in dot-coms, which crashed in 2000. In his bankruptcy testimony, he said that in hindsight, it was possible that he "should have . . . shut down at that point." He said a broker made the dot-com investments without his permission, but he kept doing business with the broker.
In trying to reconstruct what happened, a bankruptcy trustee said that the records Beachy turned over were "mutilated as a result of the removal or destruction of discrete portions of the records dating to around the time of the initial insolvency."