If, as authorities suspect, fugitive stock trader Martin Frankel pulled off a bizarre scam that cost insurance companies roughly $200 million, who is going to get stuck with the tab?
It will be policyholders in states around the country, experts said yesterday, predicting that insurers will pay for Frankel's alleged chicanery by charging customers higher premiums. And in some states, public coffers -- and, by extension, taxpayers -- will pick up the bill.
Federal investigators have mounted an international manhunt for the 44-year-old Toledo native, who vanished from his $30 million Connecticut estate in May after allegedly siphoning funds from eight insurers in an elaborate, multi-state pyramid scheme.
Authorities say that Frankel, who worked under a variety of aliases and kept an obsessively low profile, snookered state insurance regulators for years with a complicated web of dummy companies.
Pulling together the far-flung pieces of Frankel's deception is a job that could take months, and involves a novel's worth of colorful characters, including businesspeople, several Catholic priests and some very highly paid attorneys.
But as investigators struggle to figure out what happened, a group of insurance experts is trying to determine how much the debacle will cost, and who will pay.
It's a job that falls largely to a team of insurance executives working out of a five-story office building in Herndon, a few hundred yards from Dulles Airport. There, working through piles of documents, a task force set up by the National Organization of Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Associations is sifting through the carnage of Frankel's deceptions.
"Our obligations are pretty simple," said the group's president, Peter Gallanis. "It's to make sure that policyholders are taken care of."
Making good on that obligation could be complicated. The insurers that Frankel allegedly bilked were mostly small Southern carriers selling "pre-need" burial policies, which cover the funeral and burial costs of the policyholder. Gallanis and his crew, including accountants from the Washington office of Arthur Andersen, are hunting for carriers healthy enough to take on the more than 100,000 policyholders signed up with companies that Frankel allegedly picked clean.
"I'd invite him to open his checkbook," Gallanis said when asked if he had anything he'd like to say to Frankel. "Or better yet, show me some cash."
The effort by Gallanis and his colleagues will throw a spotlight on the insurance industry's network of guaranty funds, a pile of money set aside by insurers in each state to cover unexpected losses.
The rules governing each fund vary by state. In most instances, the insurers must make up any shortfalls themselves, money that Gallanis said they typically collect by raising rates very slightly for policyholders. Other states allow insurers to rebuild their guaranty funds through a tax break, usually spread over five years.
Losses are accounted for in states where the policyholder lives, not in the state where the insurer is based. Since the companies Franklin allegedly looted wrote policies in all 50 states, experts said that the price of this swindle will be borne, in undetectable increments, by millions of people across the country.
The FBI hopes Frankel will clean up this mess in person. A defense lawyer has contacted U.S. prosecutors, reportedly in the hopes of cutting a deal that would lead to Frankel's surrender.
The Frankel case is hardly the largest problem to beset the guaranty funds in years, but it is easily the weirdest. In Mississippi, where three Frankel-controlled carriers have been declared insolvent, regulators are rushing to reassure policyholders and praying that there isn't a sudden flood of claims.
"We hope not everyone dies at once," said Lee Harrell, an attorney with the Mississippi Insurance Commission.
Next week, Harrell's office will send out about 100,000 letters to policyholders across the country, reassuring them that their policies will be honored and urging them to continue to pay their premiums.
The letter will be a welcome sight to Randy Cowart, a postal worker who lives in Hazelhurst, Miss. In May, Cowart tried to cancel the burial policy he purchased through Franklin Protective Insurance, one of the companies purchased by and, in time, allegedly left destitute by Frankel. Days later, Cowart received a check for $129, a sum he considered paltry given that he'd been paying the $14.18-a-month premium for more than a decade.
Even more galling, the check bounced.
"It just kind of aggravated me," Cowart said yesterday. "I've always dealt with companies I thought were credible, and this one apparently isn't."