A lawsuit seeking $25 million in damages has been filed against the officers of Latin Investment Corp., according to a lawyer representing more than 3,000 of the company's depositors.
The class-action suit was filed in U.S. District Court Dec. 26, two weeks after lawyers forced Latin Investment into bankruptcy. It is part of a multifaceted strategy being pursued to recover more than $6.8 million in savings. The money has been imperiled since Latin Investment closed Nov. 29 because of financial problems.
"In the bankruptcy action, the objective was to marshal the assets of the corporation," Terrance Reed, a lawyer with Asbill, Junkin, Myers & Buffone, said yesterday. "The objective of the proposed class action is to go after the assets of the individual principals."
The suit alleges violations of the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law that has civil as well as criminal provisions. Latin Investment, which catered to Spanish-speaking immigrants, offered banking services without a federal charter or federal deposit insurance.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the firm and has gotten a temporary restraining order freezing the assets of Latin Investment officers. No criminal charges have been filed against them.
Last week's 20-page civil suit names Latin Investment president Fernando Leonzo, as well as Juan Alvarado, Leonel Salinas, Jose A. Cortes and Alonso Montalvo.
Montalvo, who was the firm's accountant, is playing an integral role in the SEC case, and swore in a deposition that Leonzo and the other officers used $1.2 million of the firm's deposits to buy homes and support other personal businesses.
Reed said the suit should complement the actions of the SEC and effectively tie up all loopholes that might have allowed any assets to escape recovery by depositors.
The SEC is still trying to freeze assets in El Salvador, the country where all the principals and most of the depositors came from.
The suit filed by Reed and lawyers at Arnold & Porter is similar to a legal strategy that Arnold & Porter used in 1983 against a Florida firm much like Latin Investment, called Fred's Barn.
That case involved farmworkers, mostly Haitian, who lost about $280,000 in savings at the Florida grocery store, which offered banking services without a charter.
Fred's Barn customers recovered $92,000 of their savings after a year in bankruptcy court. Then Arnold & Porter, at the request of Florida Rural Legal Services, did battle in court for five years and won a $700,000 judgment, which they are still trying to collect.
"We hope it won't take that long," said Mark Jacobson, an Arnold & Porter lawyer who helped file the class-action suit against Latin Investment. "It depends on a whole variety of factors," including what the SEC does, he said.
Also helping to speed the recovery of depositors' money is an outpouring of support by Washington law firms and accounting firms that have volunteered their services.
On Monday, lawyers representing about a dozen of Washington's largest firms met with the bankruptcy trustee to discuss strategy. Yesterday, six accountants with Arthur Andersen & Co. began poring over Latin Investment documents.
"I was very impressed by the number of large firms that came forward," said lawyer David Kuney, whose firm, David & Hagner, has volunteered bankruptcy and real estate lawyers. "I don't think I've ever seen this happen in a bankruptcy context."