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Northampton County ex-bank president charged in $10M Ponzi scheme [The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)]

By Pamela Lehman, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Sept. 27--Dozens of families who trusted former bank president Richard Freer to invest their hard-earned money to pay for college educations or comfortable retirements saw their dreams dashed Friday when authorities charged him with running a Ponzi scheme that bilked clients of $10 million.

Near the end of a six-month probe that began with a tip from one of the investors, authorities said the 67-year-old financial adviser from Palmer Township would simply open up bank accounts with new funds as quickly as investigators froze other accounts.

"It's a tragedy that lots of people here that we have identified have lost tons of money," Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said at a news conference. "We moved now because I don't want to see him out ever walking around again. I hope he has a long life because it's going to be spent in prison."

In announcing the dozens of criminal charges recommended by a grand jury, Morganelli called Freer's conduct despicable, saying he mostly conned middle-age and elderly victims out of millions and said others may come forward.

Freer and his wife, Beverly, who is also being investigated by authorities but has not been charged, did not live lavishly in their rented home at 1212 Tatamy Road, Morganelli said, but the couple dipped into the victims' funds for daily living expenses. He said there was no evidence the Freers may have had drug or alcohol issues and investigators were still trying to find out what happened to the stolen funds.

At the time of his arrest, Freer's bank accounts were listed only in the "five figures," said Assistant District Attorney William Blake, who is in charge of the grand jury investigation. Morganelli said authorities believe Freer also used the stolen funds to buy real estate outside of Pennsylvania.

Freer is charged with 90 counts each of theft by deception and theft by failure to make required disposition of funds. He also faces dozens of counts of forgery, deceptive business practices, failure to register under the state securities act and sales and purchases violation under the securities act.

Freer is in prison under the same bail amount he is accused of stealing -- $10 million.

According to the grand jury presentment:

Freer worked for Lafayette Bank for 22 years and rose to president, until being forced to resign in 1991. After "bouncing between jobs," Freer worked with Aviva Insurance beginning in 2002, authorities say.

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While working for Aviva, authorities say Freer began the Ponzi scheme, offering investors high-yield investments with little or no risk, Morganelli said. Freer's first investors were clients of Aviva whom Freer had persuaded to invest with him privately.

Freer was fired from Aviva in 2009, but continued to tell his clients that their investments were with the company. In July 2013, Aviva issued a cease-and-desist letter to Freer.

The grand jury investigation began investigating Freer in March with only one victim, identified as 80-year-old Jane Morris of Bethlehem. Morris invested more than $449,000 with Freer and received letters from the IRS that she was being fined for failing to report an annuity that had been cashed out in 2009.

She told authorities that in 2009, she was referred to Freer and although she gave him thousands, he "continually told her" she needed to give him more funds and he would double them.

When Morris asked accountant William Koscinski III last year to review her investments with Freer, the paperwork raised several red flags because of a lack of detailed information. Koscinski contacted an attorney, who alerted county authorities.

From Morris' case, authorities began seizing bank records and quickly uncovered a total of 82 victims that spanned from the Lehigh Valley to Florida and California.

Morganelli said as Freer would persuade clients to invest with him, they would recommend him to other family and friends. He said that although Freer would send annuity payments to his clients, he would withdraw the money from other accounts funded by Freer's growing list of investors.

Morganelli said one of the biggest loss by Freer's victims include the family of Rita Gencarelli and her mother, Fay Pacchioli. According to the grand jury presentment, there are at least 10 members of the family who had invested more than $1.4 million with Freer.

Freer had convinced Pacchioli, 82,of Easton, to set up a reverse mortgage on her property and turn it over to him to invest so Pacchioli could set up numerous trust funds for all her family members, according to court records.

Other victims included Kenneth and Shirley Steed, who told authorities they had known Freer for more than five decades, the presentment states.

"Because they had known Freer for such a long time, they trusted him and took him at his word," court records state.

The Steeds invested more than $600,000 with Freer, who would meet with the couple at their Bath home with promises of big payouts.

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Since the scam unraveled, the Steeds told authorities the $1,200 monthly payments they had been receiving from Freer have since stopped.

"The Steeds have been led to believe that all of the money they invested with Freer is gone," court records state.

In addition to using the victims' money for everyday expenses, authorities released Freer's other sources of income, including a monthly pension from Fulton Financial, Lafayette's parent company, for more than $1,200 and Social Security payments of more than $1,500. Freer's rent is $2,300 a month and he rents a Bethlehem office for $760 a month, authorities said.

During his arrest Friday, Morganelli said Freer offered little, although a county detective had noted Freer looked "very pale" and seemed "somewhat scared."

Morganelli said authorities will continue to probe Freer and his wife.

"We're not done yet," Morganelli said. "Not by a long shot."


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