9 years in prison; but UTU victims left holding bag

August 18, 2011

LOS ANGELES — For 15 years, Thomas L. Mitchell worked a Ponzi scheme targeting and draining the retirement funds of retired LACMTA bus workers, many of whom were UTU members.

The con artist will now spend his next nine years in federal prison – having pleaded guilty to mail fraud, according to The Los Angeles Times. And while Mitchell has been ordered to return to his victims millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains, it is likely the scores of retirees, whose comfortable retirement was ruined by the cheat, will never recover their money.

Federal prosecutors said Mitchell promised high investment returns in exchange for access to the victims’ retirement funds. Only a small fraction of the money was placed in legitimate investments, with most of the funds financing a lavish lifestyle for Mitchell, according to prosecutors

The federal judge who imposed the nine-year prison sentence described Mitchell’s scheme as a “remarkable level of deception” driven entirely by “greed.” A federal prosecutor said Mitchell “was able to lead a luxurious lifestyle by stealing the life savings of hard-working men and women who only sought a dignified retirement. For his criminal conduct, Mitchell richly deserves his nearly decade-long prison sentence.”

As UTU General Secretary & Treasurer Kim Thompson pointed out in a leadership column in 2010, while “the vast majority of investment advisers, investment firms and financial planners are trustworthy professionals, an encounter with only one dishonest individual could devastate your retirement.”

Thompson recommended retirees heed 10 steps suggested by best-selling author Charles Murray, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute:

1) Every deal is a potential scam: Recognize that fraud is an act of deceit by one party intended to induce another to part with something of value.

2) Map out your goals before shopping or investing: There’s a difference between “buying” and “being sold.”

3) Avoid mixing business with pleasure: According to the National Institute of Justice, the attempt to defraud is more successful if a person knows or knows of the offender.

4) Don’t get greedy: Remain calm and dispassionate.

5) Be suspicious of “inside information,” “hot tips” and “one-time offers”: Why you instead of Tom-Dick-and-Harry?

6) Educate yourself: Beware of getting all your information from the seller.

7) Double check all facts: A cheat doesn’t want himself or his deal scrutinized.

8) Don’t wilt when the heat is turned up: It takes a secure person to say “no” to pressure and manipulation.

9) A promise is only as good as the person behind it.

10) Scams copy the same methods used in legitimate business dealings: Spotting the difference can be difficult. Five tell-tale signs:

* Something is promised that borders between reasonable and too good to be true.

* Victims typically know or know of the swindler.

* A sense of urgency exists.

* A cheat doesn’t want himself or the deal scrutinized;

* High-pressure sales tactics are used.

Says GS&T Thompson: “There are many investment instruments including your own UTUIA annuities that are available in which to place retirement funds that can provide the necessary security and still provide a cash stream in retirement years.

“In speaking with a financial adviser, find out what their experience has been. Check their credentials and demand other client references. And never write a check directly to an individual. Your payment should be to the investment firm or to the investment fund itself. A request for direct payment to an individual is a big red flag!

“Remember, your retirement funds represent a lifetime of savings, and there is no ‘do-over,’” Thompson warned.