St. Augustine, FL – Birkenstock-clad 60-something Lydia Cladek sponsored animal rescue charities to impress her Ponzi
scheme victims. Their money went to the dogs and she ended up in a cage in Federal prison.
The Florida scamster orchestrated a $100 million pyramid racket named after herself for over ten years, a jury found. She used the initial money put into Lydia Cladek Inc. to build her lavish homestead which she then used to convince more victims that she was a successful bigwig of complicated finance.
Mixing luxurious living, showy church attendance and warm overtures of friendship, topped off with a busy enterprise employing 100-plus people at its peak, Cladek conned over 1,300 regular Joes and Joans into dumping their savings into her scheme. She pretended to be big chums with her victims in order to gain their confidence, but their bucks were the kind of chum that attracts sharks like Cladek.
“She was so believable,” victim Jean Viscariello said. “She just had that manner about her that you wanted to trust her and the fact that she was a churchgoing person and loved animals.” Hoodwinked painter Erin Ewing said “Lydia portrayed herself as a spiritual person, friendly and caring.”
Among the Florida charities that poser-philanthropist Cladek propped up with the diverted funds was Diamonds in the Rough, a shelter for discarded race horses, and an abandoned pet-rescue agency named Goliath and Bebe’s World. When one charity asked where the heck all this funding was coming from, Cladek piously replied “Everything is fine. It is easy for me to write the check and you do the work.”
Only taking money from those she befriended or their friends, Cladek’s company was supposedly investing in contracts for subprime loans to buy repo’d cars. People who bought the cars paid high interest rates on the deals, so investors would get 18% return for their investment in the discounted “car notes”. These car notes were collateral covering the investments and the investors were given promissory notes that listed the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) of the cars.
However, many of Cladek’s investors notes turned out to have identical VINs. Their money was being tunneled into the dividends for the previous round of investors. “The business never made a nickel” is how one victim quoted a court-appointed trustee.
Cladek played humanitarian when goodhearted investors expressed concern about profiting off the misfortune of others. Ewing, the painter victim, asked Cradek if it was morally wrong to put money into subprime car loans because of the high rates that companies charge people struggling with bad credit. “Lydia told me, if it wasn’t for this business, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to get a car and get back on their feet,” Ewing said.
With her faux-biz based in the ritzy Sea Grove Town Center in St. Augustine Beach, Cladek had her luxurious home designed from the ground up and then filled with splashy splendor and pricey playthings. An antique grand piano sat on the heated floor in one corner of the giant living room while a gold-leaf saucer was used as a soap dish in her gourmet-furnished kitchen; the sheets on her princess bed were all organic linen.
She threw money at a posse of domestic helpers and assistants including a dog whisperer, a Reiki healer and a life coach, not to mention the movers who constantly brought in her latest acquisitions and the usual housekeepers, pet sitters, gardeners and pool cleaners. She also splurged on deluxe oceanfront properties on the nearby resort islands of Sanibel and Captiva.
“This was a woman many of us knew for 15 years, so all of us are still shell-shocked,” said Nedra Wooley of the animal rescue charity. “She was mesmerizing and obviously fooled a lot of us.” When it all came crashing down Cladek fled town like any crook on the run, disappearing from her house and her business in St. Augustine to hide out in Ft. Meyers at her husband’s place where she was eventually arrested.
How audacious was this soul-sucking faker? Her motto was “integrity and trust are everything” which she used on gullible victims like a hypnotic voodoo mantra, according to victim Nathan Bozarth, who ended up putting his John Hancock on a $150,000 check to Cladek. “I fully trusted her,” he said. Maybe she was being 50% honest, since trust was indeed everything when you trusted your savings to her insidious scheme.
The most tragic victim might be Virginia LaRue, whose apparent success in investing her life savings inspired her 93-year-old mother to do the same. Virginia even started yet another charity to be supported by the scam, an animal-companion outfit called C.A.T.S. (Caring Animal Trust for Seniors), which like her bank account is now roadkill to Cladek’s joyride.
In a cruel twist, after Cladek’s pyramid crumbled into a Nile of red ink all the nonprofit organizations involved found themselves the subject of legal action to return Cladek’s donations. Likewise, many of the individual investors are in legal trouble, having to pay back creditors. This is due to the “clawback laws” that were supposedly created to help victims recover their money from wherever fraudsters put it.
However, in this case, the law is being used by one level of the Ponzi victims – via the bankruptcy attorneys – to go after another level. “The top of the food chain get the first lick” and they are “all the attorneys and accountants” said Ralph Brown, who lost $370,000 and was then asked to pay $200,000 more in clawback. “All the investors that lost their money are at the bottom of the food chain.” Even if they can eventually prove they had a negative bottom line, they have to spend thousands in lawyer fees to do so. As Brown said, “The people taken advantage of are getting doubly screwed.”
Rich hippy, special friend to all, patron of charities, spiritual lover of animals — Lydia Cladek played all these roles while playing everyone for suckers. Now she faces a kind of double screw herself. For her decade or so of game-playing, she’s looking at 20 years of prison.
Related: Virtual Tour of Cladek’s Former Luxury Mansion: http://rtvpix.com/rst/RE-6952-8NPJWC-01