Tuesday, January 03, 2006

This is the best encapsulation of Andi's problems that I've seen, and it has the plus of also mentioning Mariah. I guess I'll never be the standout of the Class of 1987 now, and we probably shouldn't look for the Pukkes at the 20th reunion.....

Referring link at:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bal-bz.pukke01jan01,1,1610802.story
Debt guru finds self in court, again
Civil cases seek millions from AmeriDebt founder
By Eileen Ambrose
Sun reporter January 1, 2006

To Americans drowning in debt, Andris Pukke styled himself as a lifeline to solvency.
He first promised loans to people with bad credit when he was barely out of the University of Maryland, College Park in the early 1990s. When consumers paid for loans that didn't come, Pukke encountered the law.
Undeterred by a guilty plea to mail fraud, Pukke then pursued credit counseling. He launched AmeriDebt Inc. in Germantown and perfected a new wrinkle in what had been a community-based service - advertising on late-night TV.
This time, hundreds of thousands responded. They paid millions in fees for the help they were sure was just ahead.
But regulators say the 36-year-old Pukke used AmeriDebt as a nonprofit front to charge high, hidden fees that were channeled into his for-profit enterprise.
Ultimately, according to lawsuits, consumers' money went into multimillion-dollar homes, exotic vacations with his bikini-model girlfriend and spending sprees on company credit cards. Regulators say that as they closed in, Pukke shifted millions to friends, family members and offshore accounts.
At its height, AmeriDebt was an industry leader that other start-up counselors mimicked. But as consumer complaints grew, it became what one consumer advocate called the "poster child for bad credit counseling." Pukke was hauled before Congress where, in an Oliver North moment, he took the Fifth Amendment. AmeriDebt's questionable practices spurred IRS audits of the industry and tainted the entire practice of credit counseling. Pukke's assets are frozen by court order, he has filed for personal bankruptcy, and AmeriDebt went out of business last year.
And now, beginning next week, two civil cases against Pukke filed by the Federal Trade Commission and a class of about 430,000 consumers will be heard at the same time in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. The FTC wants him to return $172 million that consumers paid AmeriDebt; the private lawsuit seeks more.
Court documents and interviews with former associates, consumer advocates and lawyers portray Pukke as an enterprising young man who, for better or worse, recognized Americans' growing appetite for easy credit. He continually adapted his business model to capitalize on his past mistakes, regulatory changes and a growing demand for credit counseling.
"He certainly is a smart guy," said David J. Vendler, a lawyer suing Pukke on behalf of former AmeriDebt clients. "He hit the market at the right time. He recognized that there is going to be an explosion of people going upside down. He got in there, moved in fast and moved in hard."
Pukke still has loyal defenders among a close-knit group of friends and family. They portray him as a pioneer who saved consumers millions of dollars - an average of $1,300, according to his lawyers - by negotiating with their creditors. Those supporters accuse the FTC of targeting Pukke because of his success, his youth and his lifestyle. "The more people he helped," said Monica Shuster-Orth, Pukke's sister-in-law who worked at AmeriDebt, "the more money he made."
Pukke denies the allegations in court filings and is not facing criminal charges, although he is under investigation by postal inspectors in New York. Because he has asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, he is prevented from testifying at his trial. Pukke declined through his lawyer to be interviewed for this article.
From New York Andris Pukke (pronounced Puck-ee) grew up in Centerport, N.Y., the grandson of a Latvian immigrant, and graduated in the same high school class as singer Mariah Carey. He arrived in College Park in 1987 to attend the university, earning a degree in marketing four years later. He also met his future wife, Pamela Shuster, with whom he has four daughters.
Pukke focused on consumer finance as a career almost immediately. One of his first ventures involved collecting an upfront fee for services - a theme that would recur.
In 1994, Pukke ran newspaper advertisements that promised consumers a loan without an upfront fee. Callers to a toll-free number were sent a loan application and advised to mail it back with $20. They were told to send $45 to a separate company that Pukke also controlled, court records say. Consumers received a letter with the names of lenders and advice on how to apply for a loan. About 1,000 consumers in 28 states were victimized.
Pukke pleaded guilty in 1996 to mail fraud in Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to three years probation, paid a fine and $38,000 in restitution. "He agreed to stop doing this," Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara M. Carlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the case.
Tony Millon, a Baltimore chef and a friend since kindergarten, said Pukke moved on, determined to work within the law. From then on, Millon said, "he insulated himself with lawyers." But critics say Pukke shifted the advance fee concept to the poorly regulated credit counseling industry.
An explosion of credit cards during the 1990s pushed the once sleepy counseling industry into an expanded role. A new kind of counseling emerged: Instead of coming in for face-to-face sessions, consumers called toll-free telephone numbers for help with debt management.
The industry mushroomed.
The launch Early into his probation, in 1996, Pukke launched a credit counseling agency that became AmeriDebt. The articles of incorporation list Pukke's wife and two other women as the three directors. Though Pukke was never an officer of AmeriDebt, he controlled its operations, according to court filings. AmeriDebt hired Pukke's family members.
Within months, the new agency obtained tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. It promised free financial education and low-cost debt management plans with no upfront fee, the FTC said. Under these plans, credit card companies make concessions provided that consumers make monthly payments to the credit agency, which is supposed to distribute money to the creditors.
Pukke had little choice; many credit-card companies had started insisting on working with only nonprofits. But being a nonprofit had other benefits. In 1996, Congress passed legislation to crack down on groups that promised to repair bad credit, and tax-exempt nonprofits were excluded.
AmeriDebt gained a major marketing advantage: Consumers trusted nonprofits, but Pukke quickly earned the ire of regulators.
The District of Columbia sued Pukke and AmeriDebt in 1999, claiming the nonprofit was a marketing arm for Pukke's loan company, Infinity Resources Group Inc.
Pukke, AmeriDebt and Infinity settled without admitting wrongdoing, and Infinity returned $1.4 million to consumers.
AmeriDebt changed its fee structure in the midst of the investigation, according to regulators. AmeriDebt - not Infinity - began to collect an upfront counseling fee and called it a voluntary contribution, the FTC said. That fee, which averaged $300, was the consumer's first payment in a debt management plan.
AmeriDebt spent millions on television advertising, and calls poured in. Eric Friedman, chief of Montgomery County's consumer affairs division, visited AmeriDebt's offices about five years ago and recalls seeing lots of cubicles with young staffers wearing headsets and working from a script.
"It was a boiler-room environment there," Friedman said.
The nonprofit offered no financial education, and there was pressure on staffers to collect contributions from clients, said Jeffrey Formulak, former director of operations for AmeriDebt, in an interview. He remembered being called into Pukke's office once because too many consumers were not paying the fees.
"There is no reason why everybody should not contribute," Formulak said Pukke told him.
John Paul Allen, a former AmeriDebt counselor, told a Senate subcommittee investigating the industry: "I should have seen a red flag during my interview with AmeriDebt when I was asked by my interviewers to sell them a stapler to prove that I could make a sales pitch."
Jolanta Troy, a behavior specialist in Pennsylvania, turned to the nonprofit several years ago after seeing its TV commercial. Divorced and supporting two children, she had run up credit card debt of $30,000. Troy didn't immediately enroll in a debt plan, and an AmeriDebt staffer continued to call her.
"She sounded kind of pushy," Troy said. "You have to get out of debt. There is no other way. Call us.' Kind of made me feel guilty."
Troy, who also testified before senators, said she enrolled in a debt plan but didn't realize that AmeriDebt would keep her initial payment. When it pocketed her first payment of nearly $800, creditors continued to call, late fees piled up, and Troy ended up filing for bankruptcy, she said.
Shuster-Orth, Pukke's sister-in-law, said clients were inundated with disclosures about the contribution, and many didn't pay it.
"We always focused on education," she said. "We never misled anyone."
Pukke's lawyers dismiss Formulak as a disgruntled employee - Formulak said he was forced out of AmeriDebt. Pukke's lawyers say a survey of AmeriDebt consumers show that most weren't troubled or confused by the upfront contribution.
With AmeriDebt taking on thousands of new clients, Pukke in 1999 formed DebtWorks, a for-profit company to process the nonprofit's accounts. Pukke's friends and former AmeriDebt insiders launched counseling agencies, and they hired DebtWorks, too.
Once DebtWorks was created, Pukke ended his involvement in running AmeriDebt, his lawyers said. The FTC claims Pukke continued to wield control.
Critics claim DebtWorks was created to siphon money out of the nonprofits. From 1999 to 2002, DebtWorks took in revenue of nearly $119 million, and Pukke and his wife took home more than $70 million, the FTC said.
Pukke purchased multimillion-dollar homes in Miami Beach, Fla., and Newport Beach, Calif., to go with the couple's Potomac home, which won a state award from the American Institute of Architects and had, among its features, an indoor basketball court.
Pukke's expensive tastes caught regulators' attention, said Millon, Pukke's childhood friend.
Probe launched In 2002, the FTC launched an investigation into AmeriDebt and Pukke. By 2003, AmeriDebt was receiving the most complaints of any consumer counselor in the country, said the Better Business Bureau. Pukke's supporters say the complaints were a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of people who were helped.
That year, four states and the FTC sued AmeriDebt for deceptive practices. The FTC also sued Pukke and named his wife as a relief defendant - someone who might not have committed fraud but benefited from it. She then filed for divorce.
Last week, she settled with the FTC, agreeing to cooperate with its case and forfeit assets. Pamela Pukke declined through her lawyer to be interviewed.
In early 2004, Congress called a hearing on credit counseling abuses, with Pukke among the scheduled witnesses. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than testify.
As lawsuits against Pukke wound their way through court, lawyers suing him worried that he was moving assets out of their reach. Last spring, the FTC accused Pukke of transferring millions from DebtWorks to friends, relatives and offshore accounts - including more than $18 million sitting in trusts in the Cook Islands and other places.
These transfers, the FTC said, included $2 million into an account in Latvia for his father; $200,000 to his girlfriend and another $250,000 to his wife.
Lawyers representing former AmeriDebt clients also complained in court filings of Pukke's "Robin Leach lifestyle," saying he wasted company money on trips to Tahiti, San Tropez and Bora Bora with his girlfriend, model Angela Chittenden. Chittenden used a DebtWorks' credit card for personal purchases such as Gucci clothing and a $7,500 set of bedsheets, the class-action lawsuit contends.
Between Chittenden and Pukke's wife, the pair charged $365,000 on a DebtWorks credit card, regulators say. They contend Pukke also spent $178,990 on interior-decorating services.
Chittenden could not be reached for comment.
A federal judge froze Pukke's assets in April based on the lawyers' complaints and appointed a receiver to hunt for them. Pukke filed for personal bankruptcy in July.
Frustrated by what it calls Pukke's lack of cooperation in identifying assets, the receiver issued 58 subpoenas for records in the first six months after the freeze. More than 125,000 pages of materials have been gathered - enough to form a stack 42 feet tall. That included documents relating to 106 bank accounts.
John B. Williams, Pukke's lawyer, said his client has been upfront and cooperative with the receiver. "There have been a lot of untrue allegations about him, and he is looking forward to his day in court," Williams said.
Pukke's trial is expected to last six weeks. Even if he loses, consumers likely won't know right away if they will receive restitution. The courts will need to sort out competing claims: The IRS, for instance, claims that Pukke owes more than $300 million in back taxes and penalties.
Joel Winston, associate director of the FTC's division of financial practices, said the agency's goal is to return as much as possible to consumers and to ensure that Pukke won't be able to operate a similar business again.
"It's important that he not be able to walk away from this as a wealthy man," he said. "We don't want him going off and starting up another credit counseling agency and cheating consumers."
Pukke's supporters say he has done nothing wrong, and that will be proved in court. "There were no laws broken," Millon said. "This is the worst injustice ever."
eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com
Sun researchers Sheila Jackson, Elizabeth Lukes, Sarah Gehring, Sandy Levy, Jean Packard and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Copyright 2006, The Baltimore Sun

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