A sweeping look into how a culture of corruption rooted in Haiti, a sprawling church network and unmonitored digital platforms gave rise to a company that ensnared Haitians in a $250 million Ponzi scheme. A year later, as victims lament their losses and betrayals are revealed, some say law enforcement must investigate further to hold more people accountable. Otherwise, the community will see a repeat.
This reporting is sponsored by a grant from The McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
Learn more about the center here.
NEW YORK — Long before EminiFX and Eddy Alexandre came along, Margarette Dominique held down a steady job at a Marriott International property in the Orlando, Fla., area for two decades. She cleaned rooms and facilities until October 2019, when a vehicle crash on the hotel grounds left her severely injured. After undergoing surgeries on her hip, lower back and neck, the accident shattered Dominique’s ability to work. For months, she worried about how she’d provide for herself. A single woman with three adult daughters, she was approaching retirement and had just purchased and moved into a house after years of saving.
“I’ve been working hard for a very long time, a very long time,” she said. “But now I can’t anymore, not even for one day.”
With her limited mobility, Dominique survived on disability and unemployment throughout the pandemic. During this time, fellow worshippers at her Seventh-day Adventist Church near Orlando stopped by to pray with her and offer support. One frequent visitor brought over groceries, ran errands and even gave Dominique massages, a common Haitian therapeutic remedy.
When an insurance settlement check eventually arrived, Dominique considered using it to become a marketplace vendor or opening a small restaurant. That’s when “the church sister,” as Dominique called the frequent visitor, told her about a way to invest in something new. The friend told her the investment involved something called Bitcoin and could bring Dominique as much as $3,000 in returns each month.
“She said she knew that I wasn’t working and that this might be better for me than [opening] a restaurant,” Dominique, who turns 61 this month, recalls, during a series of phone interviews with The Haitian Times in July and September.
Dominique wasn’t sure at first, she said. She didn’t know how to use computers or what Bitcoin, the original and most common cryptocurrency, was. But the church sister kept bringing it up and told Dominique to call a brother from their church for more information. “She said, ‘You can be a millionaire, you can be this, you can be that,’” Dominique recalls.
Dominique called the church brother. He came over with his laptop and told her she’d make money if she just put her investment “to work.” Thinking it might be good for her, Dominique went to her local bank to get a cashier’s check for $22,000 to invest.
“The manager at the bank told me, ‘Miss Dominique, do you know this person that you’re just getting money like this for?’ I said, ‘Yes, this is a good person, a Christian.’ I thought I was doing something to help myself. I believed.”
When the church brother came to pick up the cashier’s check in October 2021, Dominique said they prayed together and recited the Ten Commandments to bless the investment. He filled out what she assumed were the deposit details on his computer and told her where to sign using her initials.
After handing over the check, Dominique watched as her online statement showed that her deposit had grown the following month to $23,000. But every month after that, when she had her daughter check to see whether she could withdraw some money, she never could.
“They were always doing maintenance on the site,” she said. “There was always something, and I couldn’t get the money out. So now, where’s the money?”
Listen: In Creole, a Shekinah Seventh-day Adventist church elder tales the Haitian fable about a trickster who trades cash for ash. “That was EminiFX,” he says.
Luckner Antoine is the man to whom Dominique handed her cashier’s check. Antoine allegedly collected millions of dollars on behalf of his church in Orlando, where he was a deacon. So says a civil suit filed in Florida against Antoine, the global Seventh-day Adventist organization, about 60 of its conferences and churches and numerous individuals. Dominique’s money, according to court filings, was included in more than $250 million that eventually made their way to the financial accounts owned or controlled by either EminiFX – a purported trading platform and investment club – or its chief executive officer Eddy Alexandre, a chaplain at Maranatha French Speaking Seventh-day Adventist Church in Queens, N.Y.
Dominique’s money, it turned out, was part of a Ponzi scheme Alexandre engineered that ensnared at least 25,000 people, most of them Haitian, over eight months in 2021 and 2022. Allegedly operating through a network of Seventh-day Adventist churches and close-knit intermediaries like Antoine and “the church sister,” Alexandre promised people such as Dominique they could become millionaires by joining his club, EminiFX, which had a trading platform. He said the platform used robot-assisted (RA3) software to buy and sell cryptocurrencies and foreign exchange (FX) instruments at high returns. Investors could become millionaires within two to three years if they did not withdraw funds, he claimed.
From his office at 31 West 34th Street in bustling Midtown Manhattan, Alexandre’s lucrative promises reached Haitians near and far. He began to promote the scheme heavily around September 2021, and within eight months, mostly Haitians across the United States, Haiti and Latin America had poured in hundreds of millions of dollars. Prosecutors said over time, Alexandre hired 59 people through the staffing agency Robert Half and that 25 of his employees were in accounting roles.
Between his frequent appearances on Zoom, YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp, Alexandre became a presence consistently dangling sky-high weekly returns of 5% to 9.99%. He touted investment strategies such as buying real estate and showcased his team, including Jeffrey Perelman, who headed investor education, and Robert Xiong, who had “extensive financial modeling experience.” To some investors, having “two white guys” in the operation added credibility to the business. Most importantly, according to the court records and victim interviews, he cultivated his church contacts to promote the scheme heavily.
That’s how the word made its way to Dominique’s ear, 1,140 miles away in sweltering central Florida.
In reality, Alexandre did not buy any significant amounts of cryptocurrency or foreign exchange with his investors’ money. The fraud relied on new members being recruited, Alexandre admitted in open court. The profits Dominique and other investors saw on the EminiFX app dashboards were fictitious. Just as with a classic Ponzi scheme, the people Alexandre touted as millionaires had simply been paid with the funds deposited by other members.
Dominique knew none of this. While relaying her story to The Haitian Times last July, Dominique often sighed and sucked her teeth, still puzzled by her predicament.
“I trusted. I believed,” Dominique said. “I really believed the Adventist church wouldn’t be involved in any wrongdoing.”
Antoine could not be reached for comment, as the numbers listed for him were either out of service or incorrect. Messages left with Beracah II French Seventh-day Adventist Church, which Dominique said she and Antoine attended, were not returned.
The scheme came crashing to an end when Alexandre was arrested in May 2022. He pled guilty to commodities fraud, and after being sentenced in July, he began serving a nine-year sentence in August 2023. Between those 15 months, community members have whispered to one another hush-hush stories of some defrauded investors falling ill from anxiety or depression, others dying from the stress or attempting suicide, and some still working through grief at losing friendships and fellowship circles along with their money.
Now, although Alexandre is behind bars, the factors that have left the Haitian community especially vulnerable to such scams are still prevalent. At the top of the list is a corrosive culture of corruption with roots in Haiti that normalizes wrongdoing, leaving too many Haitians unable to distinguish fraudulent from legitimate opportunities. Second, fraudsters still have unfettered access to the Haitian community through religious networks and via digital platforms that expand their reach. Third, fraudsters tend to target people in the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups – women, the poor, elders, and Black and Brown people, overlapping categories to which many Haitians belong.
Victims, financial education experts and a handful of community leaders warn that unless more fraudsters are punished, the Haitian community will remain susceptible to such frauds. In part, they say, many Haitians are vulnerable because they haven’t learned yet how to distinguish legitimate, risky investments from “too-good-to-be-true” schemes, nor to distinguish what financial dealings are illegal or not in the United States. To enter uncharted financial territory, then, some put their trust in prominent people, especially faith-based leaders, for guidance and may turn to digital forums as a resource – to their detriment.
For these reasons, calls are growing for law enforcement to prosecute others who allegedly helped facilitate the global spread of the fraudulent operation so that the case of EminiFX doesn’t end only with Alexandre’s prison sentence.
“Those so-called leadership, they’re gonna do it again,” said Porez Luxama, executive director of Life of Hope in Brooklyn. “It’s not only him [Alexandre] who needs to go to prison. All those people recruiting from the church, the government should go after them. If they’re part of the problem, then they need to be part of the elegant solutions as well.”
“Our culture is ‘Yes, what’s next?’ It’s [people] being in survival mode,” Luxama added. “But we have to vet this stage so we can evolve, to avoid future mistakes.”
Alphonse Piard, director of financial literacy services at Sant La - The Haitian Neighborhood Center based in North Miami, said he has seen illegal schemes come and go in different forms over his 22 years assisting clients, with the latest one being the cryptocurrency buzz.
“The same people you’re trying to talk to, they say, ‘You don’t know. Somebody from my church told me. My pastor told me. Someone with an office told me,’” Piard said. “It’s a very complex psychological, social, psychological and historical [scenario]. It’s been like this for decades.”
A culture of corruption that goes way back
In the 1990s and early 2000s, hundreds of financial “cooperatives” cropped up across Haiti, pulling in some $200 million from investors inside the country and abroad. The founders of these private cooperatives – similar in name only to longstanding agricultural cooperatives organized to support farmers – promised to fund businesses that the banks had turned down. They vowed to help small businesses make money at guaranteed monthly interest rates and, overall, help build up communities long ignored by Haitian governments.
To market the cooperatives, known as the caisse populaires, the heads of these enterprises portrayed the rags-to-riches stories of their members. They deployed prominent, trusted people – from pastors to politicians – as spokespeople and even ran TV ads. Their only ask: Members had to recruit others to guarantee they, the existing members, would always have an influx of new cash to pay out the monthly interest payments on their initial “investment.”
Sound like a pyramid scheme?
By American standards and laws, it was, because the early members were essentially being “paid” with the funds of those who joined later. But for the throngs of Haitians who participated in a cooperative at the time, the venture was simply a surefire opportunity to make their money work for them.
In Haiti, corruption was so blatant that many of the country’s most prominent personalities and organizations participated, prompting even more people to join as the norm. Then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s encouragement of the cooperatives helped them to flourish. For many, the rationale was simple: If you didn’t get into a cooperative before new members stopped joining, then it was your fault for losing out.
And indeed, when new members stopped joining, the 250 or so known cooperatives came crashing down in 2002. People in Haiti and abroad were left angry, but there were few, if any, consequences for those who’d profited from the schemes. Currently, for instance, Haiti nowadays ranks 171 out of 200 countries on Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI). Haiti has occupied that spot since the list’s inception in 2012 for its “lack of bold, decisive action to fight corruption and strengthen public institutions [that] fuel organized criminal activities.”
“Corruption exists all over the country, but it’s not penalized,” said Auguste Demeza, a sociologist and economist based in Haiti. “While a scammer might be arrested in the United States, in Haiti, that person is championed. As long as he has money, the source of the money doesn’t matter.”
Such a climate is rife for fraudsters to exploit certain legitimate parts of Haitian financial culture, such as sòl, sousou – where money is pooled collectively to give to each participating member their “hand” in turn – or agricultural-based cooperatives, professionals in those fields say. The often opaque nature of the fraudulent schemes, along with changing rules and the unclear reasons given for the need to recruit more people, are so common that many ordinary people simply believe that’s how “biznis” is supposed to work. Many then choose to participate so that they don’t miss out.
Besty Wall, country director of a development organization based in Canada that invests in agricultural cooperatives, said the presence of prominent Haitians in fraudulent schemes normalizes them because regular people are not versed in such areas. In working with local cooperatives in Haiti since the 1980s, she has seen how people start to believe that when things are unclear, they are supposed to be that way. She said it’s part of the so-called “the Haitian mindset” that can fuel certain detrimental behaviors.
“The twin demons of fear and mistrust are a key impediment to economic advancement in Haiti,” Wall said. “Another is the ‘powerful leader syndrome,’ where Haitians lend legitimacy to someone who has power. Illiteracy is a third impediment – and once you address that, literacy provides confidence to address the mindset that has so long disempowered them.”
Even with all her experience in Haiti, Wall said, she was still surprised at the private cooperatives’ spread and knew they “would go bust.”
“These were really money laundering affairs,” said Wall, of productive cooperatives Haiti, in a phone interview. “It was done under Aristide, so there was some kind of trust to some extent. But it was really just a money grab.”
Fast forward about 20 years. Listening to the stories shared by Alexandre’s victims, many of these beliefs and mentality can be seen again in the EminiFX fraud. Specifically, there’s the trust in prominent people, the rush to profit before the scheme goes belly up – and even, after Alexandre was arrested, the denial by many of his victims that it had all been a fraud.
Marcelin J. Paul, a South Florida realtor, saw how EminiFX confused many of his relatives and friends who joined the platform. In an interview in January, he recalled a visit from one friend who actively recruited people for EminiFX. The friend came to Paul’s office, opened a laptop and began showing Paul a series of charts and graphs of the funds growing.
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Suspicious about why the investment strategy depended on having to constantly bring in more money and more people, Paul asked about that requirement. The friend admitted he didn’t understand how it worked. It just worked, the friend said. In fact, he had remodeled his kitchen using withdrawals he had made. And he believed in it so much that he had persuaded his mother, father and two sisters to join. Altogether, they put in about $80,000 in EminiFX.
Another friend, Paul said, invested $40,000 and had also recruited people in Haiti to join EminiFX.
“The concept of putting money together, I think, is why so many of them got caught up in this,” Paul said, referring to sòls. “When someone comes along [with something] that seems similar, they don’t understand the risk involved.”
The lack of knowledge helps explain why Binson Guillaume, a Long Island-based trucker, took a chance with EminiFX. He had heard about the company through friends and decided to try it. Seeing that the bigger the investment, the larger the potential payouts, Guillaume said he withdrew $100,000 from his 401(k) retirement account to invest for larger returns.
In an interview after Alexandre’s sentencing in July, Guillaume said he suspected the investment, which he heard about through friends, was not legitimate. “But I said, ‘Ah, let me try to see if I can get mine before it crumbles,’” he said. “When I saw I could make large withdrawals, I was so happy.”
The married father said he made withdrawals as his “returns” rose, and he began to spend the money. He bought a boat and had signed up for a sailing course when the FBI arrested Alexandre in May 2022 and seized the funds. Since then, Guillaume’s wife has left him because, according to him, he is unable to take care of her like before. Looking to recoup his financial losses, he spoke at Alexandre’s sentencing, asking the judge to impose the maximum terms to send a message to would-be fraudsters.
Pronouncing the words “Your honor” as “Jo Ana” in a thick Creole accent, Guillaume drew chuckles and snickers from younger members of the gallery. Yet, his heartfelt plea came across loud and clear.
“Your honor,” he said that day, “Eddy Alexandre ruined a lot of lives. He’s still doing it and has people working for him even after he got arrested.”
Similarly in the dark about risk, Phucien Baptiste, a former police inspector in Pétion-Ville, Haiti, says he knew nothing about Ponzi schemes. So when he decided to invest $25,000 in EminiFX, money he was saving to buy a house, the thought of it being a pyramid scheme didn’t enter his mind. It wasn’t until he began watching Alexandre on the weekly Zoom meetings that his “investigative gut” kicked in.
“I had a feeling because I used to interview criminals and things like that. When I saw his demeanor, his speech, things like that, I figured out that this guy could not be serious. But it was too late for me,” said Baptiste, an Atlanta-area nurse who flew to New York to speak at Alexandre’s sentencing.
Baptiste said he was told he had to wait 180 days to withdraw his money so he could benefit from compound interest, or he would face a 15% to 20% penalty. While waiting, his original investment grew to a purported $139,000 from his re-investing the fake returns. Phucien said he also worried about the transactions when the company began telling people to use Bitcoin for deposits and withdrawals, since he had made his original investment using a cashier’s check through Bank of America. To address his questions, he sought help from Sophia Desrosiers, who worked in the EminiFX customer service department and is married to a high-ranking pastor in the organization.
He came to see later on, he said, that switching the transaction process is an example of the scheme’s “deceitful practices.” The involvement of people like Desrosiers also proved to him that Alexandre relied on select others to maintain the operation.
Baptiste is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Seventh-day Adventist organizations, many of its pastors and select individuals like Desrosiers, also known as Sophia Maisonneuve. Dominique, the Orlando area woman, is also listed as a plaintiff in that suit.
“The FBI made a big mistake,” Baptiste said. “They made the arrest too fast. There was no way Eddy could’ve done this all by himself. He had accomplices, and those accomplices need to be arrested too. If they put only Eddy in jail, that is some kind of injustice to us and also to Eddy because he was not alone.”
Preying from the pulpit
In the U.S., researchers have found that communities scammed through affinity fraud are often vulnerable because the perpetrators know how to manipulate the unique characteristics or motivations of their particular group. Whether the targets are the elderly, immigrants or faith-based groups such as the predominantly Jewish community Bernie Madoff preyed on, leaders of such frauds often leverage that sense of shared community to draw in new victims. That’s one reason the fraudsters often partner with community leaders tied to trusted institutions – particularly churches that preach the prosperity gospel – in promoting illicit schemes.
In a slew of alleged scams that targeted the Haitian community most recently, court records frequently cite churches as a key location for recruiting potential investors – whether services are held on Sundays, Saturdays, are streaming 24/7 on YouTube or in digital fellowshipping circles. Houses of worship played a key role in promoting a property flipping scheme in Southwest Florida in which a real estate company that bought up properties for resale allegedly promised investors outsized profits. Similarly, Massachusetts authorities have alleged that a churchgoing Haitian couple led a scam to fraudulently apply for Payroll Paycheck Protection loans.
Going with a classic prosperity gospel message, preachers often tell congregants that God doesn’t want them to be poor or to struggle financially. And when delivered to struggling yet proud Haitians, it comes with additional significance. The message hones in on the dream of making it in America as Black immigrants, by investing in the same way wealthy white people do.
At the same time, seeing fellow Haitians perceived to be successful, who dress and speak well or who are in senior positions in the church can be very persuasive. That’s especially true when parishioners are bombarded with such messages – in Creole – by respected church leaders.
Jude Joseph, of Brooklyn, says he has seen that mindset play out firsthand at New York churches, including his now-former house of worship, l'Église Baptiste du Rédempteur in Flatbush, Brooklyn. According to Joseph, some of the church's members who participated in EminiFX were encouraged by people they trusted.
“We’re poor not just financially, but in our mindset,” Joseph said. “Someone who made a Bitcoin [investment], who made money off that investment, people look at him as a God. It’s poor education and manipulation, thinking that someone who knows how to speak very well has all the power.”
“When it comes to corruption, as long as it looks good in that person’s eyes, they’ll give that referral [to invest],” Joseph added.
In Alexandre’s case, the Seventh-day Adventist church was vital in promoting EminiFX and recruiting new members. His stature as a respected, God-fearing man in New York – where he regularly attended the Maranatha church in Jamaica, Queens – later opened the doors of the church network, according to numerous interviews and court filings.
Even before EminiFX launched officially in September 2021, Alexandre had burnished his reputation as a community leader. He even appeared on Haitian shows with large followings, such as TeleImage hosted by media personality Valerio Saint-Louis. In one 2020 episode, Alexandre spoke about contracting the COVID-19 virus while delivering food to the homebound at a time when many thought it taboo to disclose the illness. In offering him kudos for coming forward and bravely serving people who were homebound, the show lauded Alexandre for his leadership in the community. Once the scheme took off, Alexandre continued making appearances at churches and prayer forums to deliver sermons.
A civil suit filed in Florida now names 108 alleged co-conspirators, including more than 60 Seventh-day Adventist churches and numerous individual pastors and prominent personalities. Lawyers allege the pastors used “strong-armed tactics” to collect money from the parishioners and the arm of the religious organizations tasked with oversight failed to curb such illicit activities. If proven to be true, the suit will demonstrate the crucial role the institution played in carrying out Alexandre’s fraud.
Willy Pétion, a Pennsylvania truck driver, recalled that on several occasions, his local pastor, John Edvard Maisonneuve, persuaded congregants to invest, and he collected their money. Pétion alleges that Maisonneuve – leader of the Bethlehem French Seventh-day Adventist in Reading and Allentown’s Shekinah French Seventh-day Adventist churches for Haitians – first approached him about investing through EminiFX in mid- to late 2021.
The high returns promised seemed unreal to him, Pétion said. As a result, he asked his uncle, an IRS employee, for his opinion. The uncle told Pétion it was a pyramid scheme and that Maisonneuve and anyone else involved would eventually be arrested. So Pétion declined to invest.
“Five months later, he came back and asked me again,” said Pétion, 45, who works in transportation. “This time, he had a shiny Mercedes. He was bragging and said he was grateful to us for supporting him when he had nothing and that he didn’t want to leave us behind when he’s doing so well.”
On that second visit, Pétion alleges Maisonneuve promised that he would personally give Pétion back his investment if he were to lose the money. Also, he said, Pétion could “come in under him.”
Maisonneuve was allegedly recruiting people in different ways, according to the Florida lawsuit. He even promoted the scheme during worship services, allegedly asking congregants outright at church to join and inviting them to functions off church premises where he “pressured us,” the congregants alleged. Reassured by Maisonneuve’s additional promises, Pétion decided to give it a shot. He also asked three buddies to sign up with him.
“Pastor Maisonneuve walked door to door, asking people to join,” Pétion said. “It was like a man courting a woman. I said, ‘OK fine, if they’ll give me the money back, let me try it.’”
So in early 2022, Pétion opened two accounts with EminiFX – one for him and one for his wife – with $5,000 going into each from his TD Bank account. “They always said you had to leave it in for five months,” Pétion recalls during interviews in July and September.
As he started to see the “returns” on his investment grow through the EminiFX dashboard, Pétion began to believe he might make a profit. He then put in even more money. By then, however, EminiFX leadership was telling people to invest using Bitcoin since, unbeknownst to investors, the banks had placed the cash accounts under investigation. Investors could also give cash to EminiFX members to buy Bitcoin on their behalf – for a fee.
One night in April 2022, Pétion says he took $30,600 he had withdrawn from his 401(K) and brought the cash to the pastor’s home in Reading, Penn., about 45 miles south. He also brought another $10,200 for a friend. When he arrived at the pastor’s home, several others were already there, with cash in hand. Maisonneuve took his 2% transaction fee and allegedly told Pétion he put the funds into Bitcoin.
“Every night at their house, someone was bringing them money,” Pétion told The Haitian Times, referring to the Maisonneuves. “I knew this was no good, but the pastor said to trust him.”
In all, Pétion said he and his wife handed Maisonneuve more than $41,000 in cash. Along with the other sums he invested directly via TD Bank or Bitcoin, he said his total investment reached $61,000.
“He’s cruel. He was working for Eddy,” Pétion said, his voice rising and falling with incredulity. “Everything my uncle said would happen, came to pass.”
The Maisonneuves have not returned messages left between July and October via email, WhatsApp and phone seeking comment. In a WhatsApp message that The Haitian Times obtained, Pastor Maisonneuve – who has since been installed at New Eden French Adventist Church in Neptune, N.J. – told an investor that he and his wife were suffering emotionally. Maisonneuve portrays he and his wife as victims of the scheme as well.
Casting a wider net online
If the reliance on community leaders and the similarity to sòls and the earlier caisse populaires helped make Alexandre’s scheme feel familiar to many Haitians, his use of digital platforms supercharged his ability to spread the word about EminiFX across the country. It proliferated rapidly, community members said, turning the operation into a much bigger, more widespread fraud than scams that have targeted the Haitian community in the past.
From his home base in Long Island, down the eastern seaboard to Florida, and from there, across to Texas and out to California, Alexandre and his entourage had access in person and via digital platforms to an enormous swath of the Haitian community, an estimated 1.2 million in the United States alone. Within that population, many were inexperienced with digital platforms and found themselves spending a lot of time on devices when the pandemic forced everyone to turn to technology and go virtual.
For example, people logged into Alexandre’s Zoom meetings every Thursday for weekly investor updates. He held two meetings, one at 7 p.m. for updates and another at 9 p.m. that focused on “investor education.” Every first Sunday of the month was a virtual meeting for Creole speakers. One topic frequently discussed was how to join the platform – he explained everything from how to purchase Bitcoin or make a withdrawal, to how to add a new referral. Most of the time though, Alexandre told people to let their investment stay put and grow from compound interest.
Some Zoom attendees ended up staying on the line for nearly all four hours at times, former investors said. In between these meetings, people in Alexandre’s orbit also used digital platforms to recruit people in their own ways, victims said. In northwestern Pennsylvania towns such as hardscrabble Reading and suburban Allentown, for example, Pastor Maisonneuve hosted a monthly virtual meeting in Creole for people not fluent in English to join or stay updated.
EminiFX club members also connected with each other directly, frequently chatting in Telegram and WhatsApp groups about the fast-growing returns in their accounts. Some used YouTube to show prospects how well their investments were performing and how to create an account on the platform.
EminiFx Club members had the option to join its Affiliate Program to recruit new investors. Affiliates could earn a dizzying array of profits, bonuses and fees by bringing people to the platform, also called sponsoring them. For either a one-time fee of $49.99 plus $9.99 monthly or an active account with a membership “package” of $99 or higher, affiliates could earn a referral bonus for each new recruit. The program featured 12 membership ranks, from “Associate” to “Founders Crown Ambassador,” based on the member’s account balance. The latter rank, bestowed on members who amassed more than $2 million of their own money and recruits’ funds, came with a $100,000 bonus, perks such as the club’s glitzy galas, car giveaways and the prestige of being declared a millionaire.
A lack of financial understanding, individuals’ desire to become millionaires and access to digital tools seem to be perpetuating financial frauds faster than they grew in the past. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission said consumers reported losing $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022 – 30% more than the previous year. Roughly 40%, about $3.6 billion, was lost through investment scams, more than double the amount reported lost in 2021.
Though no one knows how many of those losses took place through digital means versus in-person or snail mail scams, experts say the use of digital channels encourages people to let down their guard.
Kurt Sampsel, senior manager for disinformation and community engagement at PEN America, the freedom of expression advocacy group, says he was struck by the many dimensions of the EminiFx scheme. The Haitian ethnicity aspect, psychological, social media dimension, financial dimension, even distrust of the government – all played roles in launching and maintaining the scheme, he said.
“The fact is, any of us can be victims to disinformation or to financial crimes or just scams,” Sampsel said. “What's distinctive about platforms like Zoom or WhatsApp is that they can feel more like a small, local community of people like ourselves, rather than a national newspaper or cable television network. And that means we may be less skeptical or critical of information we receive there.”
A steady diet of virtual meetings and group chats on encrypted apps, as well as social posts by many EminiFX investors, helped spread information about the club quickly and easily. Ricardo Estimé, a Pennsylvania-based real estate agent, invested nearly $200,000 through EminiFX and was skeptical of the government’s sudden arrest of Alexandre. He said he did not have information from the courts that contained the investigation’s details.
Estimé first joined in November 2021, he said, then he doubled down in January 2022 after seeing the returns rise – less than 4 months before the club was shut down. He and his wife invested nearly $200,000 in EminiFX, including $100,000 in cash Estimé had earned from selling an investment property. Estimé said Pastor Maisonneuve persuaded him to put the money in EminiFX. Maisonneuve allegedly said he could earn 20% in monthly returns as Estimé’s sponsor in the club and, from that, Maisonneuve would give Estimé $10,000 each month.
Even as the case progressed through the federal arrest and criminal prosecution, Estimé said Alexandre and his entourage used a slew of “ruses” – both on digital venues and in person – to keep investors from withdrawing their money. For one, the EminiFX group chats were enormous; one Telegram group consisted of 6,000 people while another boasted 1,400. Estimé says he initially got links to the Telegram chats from people in WhatsApp groups. In these groups, no one knew who anyone else really was, Estimé said. Many appeared under their nicknames, fake names or simply “iPhone” or “iPad.”
“It’s a real phenomenon,” said Estimé, who describes himself as spiritual, but not religious. “You’d be talking to someone on the phone and then you’d hear ‘Hey, so-and-so got on the Telegram, so-and-so just dropped the link.’ Then they’d send you the link.
“Then, from that group, other people would invite you to new groups,” Estimé said, referencing how much people enjoyed discussing the purported investments. “It was a total mess.”
Those groups served the purpose of keeping people in touch with one another to share how their investments were doing week to week and, later, to stay looped into the investigation and prosecution.
After Alexandre’s arrest, for example, one user in the EminiFX Telegram group began providing detailed information only those closest to Alexandre or the case would know, former investors told The Haitian Times. Estimé said the same user would appear under different aliases – such as “Namaste” and “Sepadepa” – to discount the allegations in the criminal case and villainize the court-appointed receivership set up to manage the fallout from the scam.
At one point, another Telegram user who appeared off camera as a Mr. Lee was introduced by Alexandre as the owner of an investigations company called Renaissance working to ensure club members kept their funds, Estimé said. This Mr. Lee, who did not appear on camera, tried to raise $2 million for Alexandre’s legal defense. The user also offered trading advice and, later, began to recruit people for a class about revelations contained in the Book of Apocalypse – for a fee of $400.
It wasn’t until April 2023, Estimé said, that he learned the Telegram user who had provided the detailed updates and Mr. Lee were one and the same – when Alexandre referred to that man on a call as “my little brother Levy Alexandre.”
“They used a lot of ruses, a lot of deceit, to keep people on their side,” Estimé said of Alexandre’s closest friends and relatives. “They played with information.”
Neither Alexandre, prior to his prison term starting, nor his attorney responded to numerous requests for comment for this story. No one answered the door at a listed address in Valley Stream in July.
Easy targets or willing victims?
Besides giving Alexandre and the other pastors regular, unbridled access to Haitians, digital platforms helped tantalize people to join by showing them “the good life.” That is, they featured a slew of items – cars, homes, clothing – associated with being rich. TikTok, for one, is overflowing with ads in Creole featuring women waving dollar bills from their “investments.” Likewise, on Instagram and Facebook, are ubiquitous ads and posts showing people posing with luxury goods from their purported investments.
Lawrence Delva-Gonzalez is a federal auditor and a certified fraud examiner who runs an independent financial literacy site, theneighborhoodfinanceguy.com. As a community member, Delva-Gonzalez has seen many fraudulent schemes perpetrated against Haitians. In the U.S., many Haitians fall into one or more of three major categories that many scammers target, he said: Black people, women and those in low-income brackets. Scammers know that these three groups are among the most susceptible to financial schemes, says Delva-Gonzalez, because they have the least to lose and the most to gain. So scammers often cast their nets there.
He points out that one major reason scams continue to grow is that those who are targeted often remain “willfully ignorant” of how their investments are supposed to earn the big returns promised. Daydreaming about an eventual payday, as seen online or told to them in person, is often more attractive than researching a proposed investment.
“They’re saying, ‘Your money is better suited in my hands,’” Delva-Gonzalez said, referring to the influencers and prominent folks used to recruit investors. “They sell the lifestyle. They’re showing people not a true reality, [but] whatever social media says is the luxury look.
“My aunt used to say, ‘fè logic lan,’” he said, a Creole phrase that essentially means ‘do the math.’ Instead, he added, “Everybody is trying to shortcut their way into better wealth.”
One 74-year-old retiree, who asked to go by Elisé Felicien, admits that’s what she tried to do when she joined the EminiFX club. A long-time home health aide, she was anxious about not having enough to live on. Much like Dominique in the Orlando area, she was no longer able to work, but did not have enough to live comfortably. With limited options, she resorted to working again on her own.
As a regular visitor to the Allentown church Maisonneuve led, the retiree was invited and attended a birthday party the pastor threw for his daughter in March 2022. During that party, she said, Maisonneuve allegedly promised her that she would earn good returns and that the money was insured. He told her to start thinking instead about the brand of car she wanted to be riding the following year.
“‘Don’t be scared. If you have patience, you’ll get the money back,’” Felicien said Maisonneuve told her. “‘I have it all under control.’”
About a week later, Felicien and several others went to Maisonneuve’s home. She brought him her $15,100 in cash — money that she had squirreled away over a couple of years from odd jobs to cover housing expenses. It was close to 1 a.m., but she says Maisonneuve’s home was filled with people who had stopped by to drop off cash for the club. They were all Maisonneuve’s referrals.
“It was like a medical office waiting area,” alleges a church elder who was there with Felicien. “People were coming in all the time. He kept so much cash in a bag in his house.”
Two months later, to her shock, Felicien said she found out the investment opportunity Maisonneuve had touted was under Alexandre’s leadership. As a former member of the same Queens church as Alexandre, Felicien said she had heard his name mentioned in a rental property deal gone bad.
“Had I known it was led by Eddy, I wouldn’t have joined,” said Felicien, who spoke with The Haitian Times in September. “But I didn’t know.”
Speaking with The Haitian Times in September, Felicien was more worried than ever. At a coffee shop in central New Jersey, she spoke of how she must now live with the family for whose elderly parent she is the caregiver because she cannot afford an apartment. One knee, overdue for replacement surgery, was wrapped in an herbal concoction to ease her pain.
Her only hope now, she says, is to recover her cash from Maisonneuve so she can look at renting an apartment. Like many others who were recruited as a referral by another EminiFX member, she’s convinced the money she gave him won’t show up in the records of the court-appointed receiver. She is unsure if Maisonneuve actually deposited the money in her name or his own.
“The government doesn’t have all that money,” Felicien said. “What am I supposed to do?”
One week later, Felicien, Pétion and a few others from the Pennsylvania area filed a small claims suit against Maisonneuve to recover their cash. The group sent a copy of the court claim to a new home address for Maisonneuve in Howell, New Jersey, a property that sold for $735,000 in June 2023.
One week after that, a petition also appeared online calling for the Allegheny East Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist church to remove Maisonneuve from his new post. The law firm representing the regional conference declined to comment.
Back in Orlando, Dominique is still unsure how to track down or get back her $22,000. When The Haitian Times told her about the receivership opening a claims site for investors to check EminiFX transactions by using their emails to log in, Dominique said she was not sure if she had received the email, sent to all users in September, nor how to go directly to the user portal. Somewhat intimidated, she has put off calling the receiver’s hotline to ask for a Creole speaker that might help.
“I don’t know what to say to them,” she said in a whisper, fretting. “I just don’t know.”