MIAMI -- The man who masterminded an $800 million insurance scam that fleeced tens of thousands of investors in one of Florida's all-time largest fraud schemes was sentenced Friday to 20 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola gave Joel Steinger, 64, credit for pleading guilty to avoid a lengthy and costly trial and said Steinger's multiple medical problems -- he appeared in court in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank -- argued against the maximum 50-year sentence sought by prosecutors.
But Scola said Steinger still deserved a lengthy prison term because, as chief executive of now-defunct Mutual Benefits Corp., he orchestrated a fraud scheme that victimized more than 30,000 investors in all 50 states and numerous foreign countries between 1994 and 2004.
"My understanding is that most of the time, on the major decisions, it was you making the decisions," Scola said. "It's clear that you were the mastermind of the criminal enterprise."
The company, first investigated in 2003 by the state Office of Insurance Regulation, bought life insurance policies from people with AIDS, cancer and other chronic illnesses and sold them to investors. The policyholder would get paid an upfront, discounted amount and the investor was promised a larger insurance payout when the person died.
The company promised safety and sky-high returns. But Steinger and others involved in the scam admitted that life expectancy numbers were cooked, the company's financial strength was falsified and eventually older investors were being paid with money from newer ones in classic Ponzi scheme fashion. Mutual Benefits was shut down by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Rochlin argued for the longest possible sentence, comparing Steinger to convicted Ponzi schemers Bernard Madoff and Scott Rothstein, the former South Florida attorney who is serving a 50-year sentence for running a $1.2 billion scam involving investments in fake legal settlements.
"There should be no others like him ever again," Rochlin said of Steinger.
From his wheelchair, Steinger delivered a rambling 40-minute monologue repeating his many health issues and apologizing for hurting investors and his own employees.
"It eats my guts out that this turned into a criminal enterprise, that people got hurt," he said. "Nobody intended this to end up the way it did, least of all me."
Steinger is the last of 13 defendants convicted in the case, including his brother Steven Steiner who is serving 15 years behind bars. The brothers spell their last names differently.
Part of Friday's hearing concerned Steinger's 2007 assistance to the FBI in an offshoot case involving Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, a Fort Lauderdale eye doctor who was seeking campaign contributions to wield influence among state leaders in Tallahassee. Steinger wore a recording device in conversations in which Mendelsohn falsely claimed he had enough clout to make criminal investigations into Steinger's business disappear.
Mendelsohn eventually pleaded guilty in a federal corruption case and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Steinger got little credit in his own sentencing for his cooperation because, as Rochlin put it, he only turned to the FBI about Mendelsohn when investigators were closing in on his own fraud scheme and he didn't help them uncover the truth behind Mutual Benefits.
"It was too little, too late," she said.