In January 2011 we posted an article by Susan Misur of the New Haven Register, where she warned against a scam called the Women’s Gifting Table. Our prediction about ‘dessert in prison’ may be coming true for several Connecticut women.
Here is Susan’s follow up article published in The Chicago Tribune. The underlining is ours. The picture above is from The Middletown Press.
Women from Guilford, Essex charged in gifting table scheme
Click here for Chicago Tribune Story
Susan Misur New Haven Register, Conn.
7:30 a.m. CDT, May 3, 2012
A few years ago, Donna Bello, Bettejane “BJ” Hopkins and Jill Platt were allegedly raking in the dough through the Women’s Gifting Table.
On Wednesday, the Shoreline trio stood before a federal court judge and pleaded not guilty to fraud charges as a prosecutor charged that the gifting table was an illegal pyramid scheme and that others who participated lost a total of $1 million. Attorneys accompanying the women to the Hartford courtroom offered various defenses for the women, including ignorance of the table’s illegality and participation for philanthropic purposes.
Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations agents arrested Bello and Platt at their Guilford homes and Hopkins at her Essex residence Wednesday between 7:45 and 8:45 a.m. A New Haven grand jury had returned indictments against the three Tuesday, charging each with conspiracy to defraud the IRS, four counts of filing a false tax return, 12 counts of wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
“The indictment alleges that the three defendants ran a pyramid scheme designed to enrich themselves at the expense of other participants,” David B. Fein, U.S. attorney for Connecticut, said in a prepared statement. “In addition, the indictment alleges that the defendants tried to use the pretext of ‘Gifting Tables’ as a way to avoid paying taxes on the substantial illegal proceeds of their scheme.”
The indictment also details the secretive nature of the tables, including how one woman referred to her earned money as “green beans” in an email to another member and how members needed to “keep silent and under the radar.”
The investigation is ongoing and could result in more arrests.
State Attorney General George Jepsen’s office also said its own separate investigation, which began under now-U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, is also continuing.
The indictment says that from 2008 to 2011, Bello, Hopkins and Platt were “leaders” in gifting tables. Bello was identified by Doug Morabito, assistant U.S. attorney, as the “ringleader” and had been previously labeled as such by women involved in Shoreline tables.
The scheme has run rampant on the Shoreline and even spread to other areas; tables with their own hierarchies and members have been operating around the state simultaneously. Participation is by invitation only, and women have often been invited by trusted friends and told they would be entering a “sisterhood.”
New participants entered on the bottom leg of the table, called the “appetizer” level, while those on the second peg were the “soup and salad level,” and those higher were “entrees.” The woman at the pyramid’s top was the “dessert” level.
To join, members each contributed a $5,000 cash “gift” to the woman at the top. Once that woman received money from eight members — giving her $40,000 total or a profit of $35,000 — lower members would move up and eventually reach the profitable dessert level. But eventually as there are fewer recruits and therefore less money coming in, members can’t move up levels and lose their initial investment.
According to the indictment, Bello, Hopkins and Platt hosted parties, meetings and conference calls for new recruits and existing members, misrepresented the gifting tables and omitted facts. It goes on to say they told recruits the $5,000 gifts were legally considered “tax-free” and not to report the money on their tax returns. The document adds that they recommended women not deposit the money into bank accounts unless it was less than an amount banks report to the government.
The indictment includes excerpts of emails the women sent to others. In one, Bello allegedly told a participant she “believe[d]” the woman would make $80,000 within a year, and in another Bello allegedly wrote, “My goal was to come up with 80k GREEN BEANS this year. It is going to happen, it could also be 120k, who knows. This is awesome!” She also allegedly typed in an email to Hopkins, “keep bringing in new blood.“
Platt allegedly wrote in an email, “It’s sort of a joke that I refer to our freezer as the ATM.” Hopkins also allegedly emailed Platt and Bello, saying, “We need to keep silent and under the radar.”
The indictment mentions that after a New Haven Register article ran in March 2010 exposing the tables, Bello held a meeting and sent an email to participants stating the tables were legal. In May 2010, Bello, Platt and Hopkins allegedly attempted to intimidate a participant questioning if the tables were legal.
For their involvement, Bello, Hopkins and Platt face charges that each bring from three to 20 years in prison, fines of up to $250,000, years of supervisory release and assessments of $100. Each of the women was released after U.S. Magistrate Donna F. Martinez required their husbands to be their custodians.
But Morabito said the government was “concerned” about releasing Bello, 55, as she has a pending criminal case for allegedly assaulting a Branford police officer Jan. 1, 2011. Richard Marquette, who represented Bello Wednesday, said he agreed with releasing Bello to her husband, prominent New Haven businessman Joel Schiavone, but said Bello’s version of her arrest is “very different” from the government’s.
Bello was released on a $1 million secured bond with her 439 North River St. home, estimated at around $550,000, and another property at 71 Hidden Lane, worth around $300,000, as collateral.
Morabito said in court that Bello allegedly made around $400,000 from the gifting tables after cycling through 10 times, but Marquette disagreed with the prosecutor’s portrayal.
“The government makes her out to be a profiteer, but she didn’t profit whatsoever. She did it for philanthropic reasons and gave money to others,” Marquette told court officials. Marquette declined to comment after court, while Bello told media she was “sorry” she could not comment.
Morabito called Platt a “principal overseer” of the tables. Martinez released Platt, 63, on a $500,000 secured bond that uses her 173 Whitfield home as collateral. It was estimated to be worth a minimum of $300,000 to $400,000, according to Jonathan Einhorn, who represented Platt.
“Anything Ms. Platt did, she did on advice of counsel,” Einhorn said after the court appearance, explaining that Platt previously talked with attorneys who were both involved with and outside of the gifting tables. “That’s her defense. We believe after a trial and jury hears that all that she did she believed was justified and legal, there’d be no criminal intent.”
He added Platt retained him as counsel last year when she learned she was a target of the investigation and that she’s “upset. She was tending to her mother, who is dying of cancer, when they came to her house this morning.”
Martinez also released Hopkins, 66, on a $500,000 secured bond using Hopkins’ 80 Walnut St. property in the Ivoryton section of Essex as collateral. Hope Seeley, who represented Hopkins, said the house has a value of about $400,000.
Hopkins volunteers at a hospital by offering hands-on healing before and after surgeries and at her church, Seeley said. Based on her ties to the community, Seeley asked that she be released to her husband, and declined to comment after court.
An alleged victim of the tables who says she was interviewed by the grand jury last year said she was “glad” to learn of Wednesday’s arrests, but is still upset about her experience and loss of $5,000.
Blumenthal, reached by phone Wednesday evening, said he is “very pleased” the scheme has been exposed by federal authorities and cooperated with them when he was attorney general.
“This federal action sends a powerful message that pyramid schemes and scams are not victimless crimes and will not be tolerated,” he said.
Crazed gifters will holler at us that what they are doing is legitimate. Our standard reply is, “Don’t bother trying to convince us. We are not the ones with the handcuffs. Take your scheme to the AG and convince them!” So far, no-one has taken us up on the challenge. Or maybe they have, and they can’t contact us from prison to tell us the end of their story.
PS Thanks to all the gifters who post YouTube videos (wire fraud) of themselves opening their FedEx envelopes full of money. It will make it much easier for the police to find you, and will save us taxpayers some costs. Much appreciated!
Bob and Anna Bassett