Jury to start deliberations in $300M telemarketing fraud trial
Lonsdale Area News-Review (MN)
A jury in Minneapolis on Friday heard closing arguments in the case of three people charged in a nationwide telemarketing scam that ensnared more than 150,000 magazine subscribers and cost them $300 million. The jury of five men and seven women were expected to begin deliberations Monday morning.
Amondo Antoine Miller, Tashena Lavera Crump and Ballam Hazeakiah Dudley, are among five dozen people indicted in what federal prosecutors say was a conspiracy that operated for two decades from "boiler room" call centers in 10 states, including Minnesota.
The three are among several defendants who opted not to enter into plea deals with the Minnesota U.S. Attorney's Office. A fourth defendant who was also slated to stand trial, Monica Sabina Sharma-Hanssen, 55, allegedly fled to Sweden.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis says this is among the largest telemarketing scams that the Justice Department has prosecuted.
Investigators say that managers of the telemarketing companies, which had no preexisting business relationships with the victims, bought and sold sales lead lists of magazine subscribers amongst themselves, and in some cases stole lists to open new operations.
FBI agents and postal inspectors began infiltrating the sprawling group after a grand jury indicted Wayne Robert Dahl Jr. in 2018. Dahl, 55, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and helped investigators turn the tables by creating fake sales leads that connected his co-defendants to undercover agents' burner phones.
A 2016 lawsuit against Dahl and his company Your Magazine Service, Inc. by former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson prompted the federal investigation.
Miller, 47, allegedly ran Magazine Solutions, a telemarketing operation in the Denver area and served as a sales lead broker. Investigators allege that Crump, 39, was the general manager of several companies in the Twin Cities including Readers Club Home Office. Dudley, 37, is alleged to have been a telemarketer for Westside Readerz, which operated from a call center in Fridley.
Miller did not testify in his own defense, but jurors heard testimony from Dudley and Crump during the trial's final week. In response to questions from her attorney Matthew Forsgren, Crump on Wednesday described losing her father to homicide at age 12 and said that she began working in the telemarketing industry while still in high school.
Crump said she went to work for Readers Club Home Office owner Brian Williams in 2010. She soon became second in command, and admitted that though she had communicated with sales lead brokers, she never thought the business was fraudulent.
Williams, 54, who also owned several other magazine telemarketing companies, pleaded guilty in 2020 to conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
But under cross examination from Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams, Crump admitted knowing about a large number of credit card refunds that had been flagged for suspected fraud as well as complaints from multiple state attorneys general.
Williams noted that investigators found handwritten letters in Crump's office from victims demanding an end to incessant payments.
"How many times did you need to hear the word fraud before it raised a red flag for you?" Williams asked.
"All companies have complaints is how I saw it," Crump responded. "Every single telemarketing company I worked at received complaints."
In closing arguments on Friday, Miller's attorney Robin Wolpert described her client as a "struggling businessman" who operated in Colorado independently from the others. Wolpert said that it requires a "leap in logic" to conclude that Miller intended to commit fraud.
Dudley's attorney Donald Lewis described his client as a low-level employee who "sold the sausage but didn't know how it was made," and was unaware that Westside Readerz had no preexisting business relationships with the people it called.
In his closing rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Jacobs said that it was "preposterous" to suggest that Miller's company was on the up-and-up.
"It was all deception, all the time, that's Magazine Solutions," Jacobs told jurors. "You saw credit card statement after credit card statement with hundreds or thousands of dollars for these witnesses who came and testified."
Jacobs also noted that even though Dudley was not a leader in the scheme, investigators traced 3,400 fraudulent calls to him, including several to undercover agents.
Over the course of the three-week trial, 10 victims testified, including some who'd lost more than $60,000.
One victim, Phyllis Schreier of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was widowed during the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, told jurors that she had been fraudulently billed by 10 companies simultaneously.
Prosecutors allege that Schreier was one of the victims whom Dudley called and that investigators found one of Schreier's checks in Crump's office while executing a search warrant in early 2020.
Carolyn Newsome of Ahoskie, N.C. testified in October and told MPR News that she lost nearly $7,000 to 20 different companies after initially subscribing to four magazines in 2013.
Newsome, 75, said that she had thought she had paid for her subscriptions in full, but began getting phone calls from telemarketers and wound up receiving 13 different magazines each month that she did not want.
In many cases, scammers would record the final portion of the call, with the victim's consent, so that if taken out of context it would make the victims sound as if they had agreed to new subscriptions, prosecutors said.
"When I got fed up with paying I said I need to start looking back to see who I'm paying. So I took all my bank statements from 2013 all the way to 2016 and I started writing down the ones I had paid. [It was] a lot of money."
Newsome said that the charges finally stopped when she changed her credit card number.
Her husband Larry Newsome said that they combed through their account statements and contacted attorneys general in North Carolina, Florida, and California when they realized they'd been victims of a telemarketing scam.
"I was amazed at how many different companies had the exact same routing number," Larry Newsome said. "I said 'we've got to do something about this.'"
The couple advises others to keep a close eye on their bank and credit card statements and be careful what they say to telemarketers.
"Don't say yes to anything when somebody calls you," Larry Newsome said.