Feb. 10--FORT WORTH -- The mission of Crime Stoppers programs is to help law enforcement catch criminals.
But 32 such programs across the United States are alleging that they are victims of a Fort Worth insurance agent who misappropriated more than $23,000 worth of premiums for insurance coverage.
Don Russell Handley Jr. is accused of not forwarding some or all of money paid to him by the Crime Stoppers group to an insurance carrier. As a result, policies were not placed or were canceled for nonpayment, according to Texas Department of Insurance documents obtained by the Star-Telegram.
Handley, 74, is also accused of fraudulently taking out loans from premium financing companies on behalf of other clients, including Arlington Charities and the Shriners Hospital for Children, for insurance policies that had already been financed or paid for, or simply did not exist.
"It could have bankrupted a charity or a Crime Stoppers program," said John Lamb, chairman of Crime Stoppers USA. "When you take on being a member of a board of a 501(c)(3) organization, you also take on a fiduciary responsibility. Depending on your state's law, some local program's board members could have been held financially responsible for a lawsuit because of this."
The case has now been referred to the Travis County district attorney's office in Austin, where officials say they intend to present it a grand jury to determine whether felony charges are filed.
Handley said tough times, delayed payments by customers and changes in one insurance company's accounting practices left him with more expenses than revenue. He said he made every effort to catch up on premium payments and denies any intentional wrongdoing.
"Yes. I made an error. It's like I was in an automobile accident and I was at fault but I didn't intentionally hit anybody," Handley said. "This wasn't a Ponzi scheme. This wasn't a plot of 'Hey, I've got a real good idea. I've been in this business for 50 years and I think I'll try to rip off a national Crime Stoppers program.' I was doing the best I could to write all those accounts and take care of them and stay on top of it."
Lamb was a board member of the Crime Stoppers program in Bartlesville, Okla., in 2011 when he realized that the group didn't have a copy of the their insurance policy and requested one from Handley, their longtime trusted agent.
Handley said he'd send one but never did, Lamb said. Lamb, an insurance agent himself, then called the insurance carrier and learned there was no policy.
Lamb alerted other Crime Stoppers programs to verify their insurance coverage and learned that his group wasn't alone.
"We started getting a flood of notifications in from Crime Stopper programs across the country that he had done this to them," Lamb said. "They didn't know it. They assumed they had insurance coverage."
Don Cormier, treasurer for the Williamson County Crime Stoppers program, just north of Austin, said Handley sent him a letter confirming that his insurance was in place.
But after learning that Handley was under investigation by the Insurance Department, Cormier checked directly with the insurance carrier and learned otherwise.
"Bottom line was I had paid him some premiums that he never forwarded to the insurance company," Cormier said, adding that the insurance company still honored the policy after Cormier sent them proof that he'd sent almost $1,100 in premium payments to Handley.
"What I don't understand is this guy was coming to our conferences. He was pushing his insurance there. He had a bunch of clients," Cromier said. "Why he did this is stupid to me. People just get greedy sometimes."
When informed that TDI intended to revoke his insurance licenses, Handley wrote to the agency and placed some of the blame on the newly appointed Crime Stoppers USA board's desire to have each Crime Stoppers organization handle its insurance needs locally.
As a result, Handley wrote, several Crime Stoppers groups dropped him.
"Now I am trying to survive without their endorsement, with all the charge backs of commissions, the cancellations creating minimum premiums, non renewals and return of payments paid," Handley wrote.
Handley wrote that he had had to close his offices on West Rosedale Street, move his business to a rental house and work full time at a department store "in order to implement income seriously damaged by the withdrawal of my major account and largest market."
Lamb, however, said Crime Stoppers USA withdrew its endorsement only after various Crime Stoppers programs began realizing they didn't have the insurance policies they'd paid for.
"We dropped our endorsement of Russ when my program realized that it had been ripped off and we received reports from other programs that they had been ripped off," Lamb said.
'Never heard back'
Melanie Gibson, executive director of Arlington Charities, had used Handley for years for the organization's various insurance policies -- and without problems.
But Insurance Department documents allege that Handley fraudulently obtained more than $9,500 in loans from Select Premium Services, a premium financing company, on behalf of Arlington Charities for four insurance policies. Those policies, according to the department, were either never funded, were previously canceled, or were cases in which direct billing had been set up between the charity and insurance company.
Handley defaulted on the loans, however, after making only one payment, the documents say.
Gibson said she never knew that Handley had taken out such a loan on the agency's behalf.
"We have always paid our insurance at the beginning of the year annually. We make one payment," Gibson said. "Then we started getting notices from the insurance company that we were delinquent."
Select Premium sued Handley in March 2011, accusing him of stealing about $35,000 in fraudulently obtained loans, including the one he made on behalf of Arlington Charities. The lawsuit has been settled.
Gibson said that after receiving the delinquency notices she demanded a meeting with Handley. She said he told her that he had filed for bankruptcy but was trying to omit the charitable organization from his list of creditors in hopes he could one day pay it back.
Gibson said the charity never received a dime from Handley and paid additional premiums that year.
"It always makes me really sad that someone wants to defraud some local agency," Gibson said. "That's a lot of money for us."
She said she even sent Handley a letter, offering to let him do volunteer service in lieu of paying back the money "but I never heard from him again."
'Never lived high'
North Texas U.S. Bankruptcy Court records show that Handley did file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1997 but that no new filings have been made. Handley said he has not filed for bankruptcy again because he is still trying to raise enough money to pay his bankruptcy attorney.
Handley denies pocketing any money, saying he drives a 2001 pickup, lives in a rental house and has "never lived high and don't have any extravagant-looking things."
"Every bit of money that was ever taken was put into the insurance accounts but the insurance accounts also pay expenses," Handley said. "What you guarantee will never happen is that you've never have more expenses that what you have money in the accounts. That, unfortunately, happens in business and it happened to a lot of businesses in the last four years and I'm one of them."
Handley said he voluntarily surrendered his licenses days before a November hearing after the Insurance Department told him that it intended to add a $25,000 fine to his penalty. By surrendering his licenses, he said department officials told him, the agency would simply close its file and the case "will all go away."
"There is not any question I'm guilty of fiduciary irresponsibility because you have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the funds -- that paid to you. I understand that well. I wasn't able to do it. I know legally I've got to do something about that," Handley said.
But that he could still face criminal charges came as a surprise to Handley.
"There's not a question that I failed in business," Handley said. "But failure in business should not make me guilty of a crime."
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655
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