The voices of elected officials, other high profile community members have been notably absent overall in the EminiFX debacle, even after its CEO was sent to jail and some of the most vulnerable people are left with little to no support in getting back their money.
NEW YORK—It says something about a community when the biggest advocate for prosecuting a potential crime against its members, other than the direct victims, is himself a former convict. But that’s what’s happening in the Haitian community nationwide, as defrauded EminiFX investors reel from the impact of losing their money in the Ponzi scheme. Emmanuel Roy, a disbarred attorney who served time for fraud himself, says he has met more than 1,000 people affected and helped connect some of them to a civil suit filed in Florida against the churches allegedly involved in recruiting congregants.
“This was the biggest crime against the Haitian community,” Roy, 56, said in an interview in July. “I’ve never seen such a crime involving the church. When something happens of such magnitude, somebody has to say something about it. People talk to me because there’s nobody else to talk to.”
Indeed, elected officials near and far who represent large Haitian constituencies have been uncharacteristically mum about the impact EminiFX has had on thousands of Haitian families – a sharp contrast to the frequency with which they issue statements on far less serious matters. Yet, little has been said about the arrest, conviction or the financial losses, anxiety attacks, depression or near suicides – to name a few ills people revealed to The Haitian Times – that the community is still grappling with. No actions have been proposed to help people recover emotionally, or to teach how to protect themselves from further scams through financial literacy and anti-fraud education programs.
Among the closest to home is leader Michaelle Solages, the New York State Assemblymember whose district office is one mile from Alexandre’s last listed home address in Valley Stream. She did not return messages left with her office seeking comment for this series. Given the breadth of the fraud, The Haitian Times reached out to the National Haitian Appointed and Elected Officials Network (NHAEON). For months, nothing about the scam in its programming.
To explain the prevailing silence up until now, some speculate that some leaders – politicians, pastors, police officers, to name a few mentioned – were probably among the investors who lost money or recruited folks. Roy, who earned the nickname “The Professor” for his YouTube channel explanations, freely admits he “made his mistakes.” He, in particular, said: “Believe me, there’s a list of people, and I don’t want to be the one who names some of the politicians in Brooklyn who actually invested money in EminiFX.”
Roy said he didn’t set out to become the go-to for many former investors and that he’s not being paid or earning money from the activities. However, “It’s not like one or two people. This was like the size of a small town in America.”
“People who are leaders in the community or who call themselves leaders – they have an obligation to help people how to avoid this type of fraudulent scheme,” he said. “They have to be able to say, ‘hey, when someone asks you for money, we have an obligation, especially those of us who are better educated, who understand the country… we have that obligation to protect. We have to be able to say to them: here’s how to go about it…”
Whether Roy is correct about the leaders’ involvement remains to be seen. Maybe that will emerge as the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) civil case with the receivership and the Miami-based suit against the Seventh-day Adventist church go through the courts. For now, Roy has become the most outspoken defender of the many victims found after the FBI shut down EminiFX and arrested its CEO Eddy Alexandre.
What’s clear at this point, in interviews with defrauded investors, is how little support the most vulnerable victims have in their communities. Between red flags like the large cash transactions and the multi-level bonus structure, it’s obvious how severely Haitians need to better understand what’s legal, illegal and somewhere in between in America. Same with how risk factors in legitimate investments. Also the same with why it’s important to know that just a person or product is not automatically legitimate just because they have a platform – be it a pulpit, website, app or fancy Midtown office.
“These [scams] have been around in the community for a long time. Someone should be able to give these warning signs,” said Dina Simon, a Huntington resident, adding, “Why don’t we have a fraud clinic, like the immigration clinics?”
Answering that key question touches on a slew of issues that highlight some major gaps our community must address to be successful collectively. Among them, the “fear and distrust” demons presented in the EminiFX trap, fear of losing immigration status, a lack of representation in key areas of local government and lack of education, specifically literacy – both general and the financial.
At the moment, the Haitian community is growing past the current estimate of 1.2 million to 1.5 million as newcomers come in every day through humanitarian parole or family reunification, or they settle in with TPS, asylum and other programs. All of us must know that becoming a millionaire, the coveted status that pulled in so many people into EminiFX, is within reach. But only if the community, not individuals alone, gets smart and puts in place certain structural pillars.
At least, that’s what some community members, financial literacy and misinformation experts say
Just before publication, NHAEON’s President Charnette Frederic responded that NHAEON does want to address the rising concerns about scams targeting the Haitian community. She said via text message that the organization and its individual members must advocate for awareness campaigns to educate people about common scams, support networks for victims, and mentorship and guidance to those affected.
“The protection of the Haitian community from scams is a collaborative effort that demands the active engagement of elected officials, as well as the active participation of individual community members,” Frederic said. “By raising awareness, extending a helping hand to those affected, and engaging with constituents, we can collectively work towards combating the fraudulent activities and ensuring the overall well-being of the Haitian community.”
How to go about it is the next big question. Here are a few suggestions, compiled from interviews with community members, experts and victims.
Hold revered pastors, politicians, other prominent Haitians accountable
Start with the leaders.
Jacques Desamours, a West Palm Beach resident, says the tendency to trust easily can lead to financial exploitation – especially when the victims do not know which questions to even start asking or how to research a purported professional. That’s why it’s crucial for the community to learn to scrutinize people in authority asking to be trusted with their money.
Haitians must start making it part of their habit to demand professionalism and diligence in financial matters, Desamours advises. With corruption and distrust rampant in Haiti, the diaspora should be even more conscientious in demanding structured leadership to better advocate for Haitians.
“It’s the pastor’s job, before they put someone in front of the congregation, to put them through some scrutiny, not just looking at the presentation the person puts in front of you,” he said. “If you don’t know that, how are you going to know if that person is a crook?
“You can’t just accept everybody and bring them into your community,” he added.
For the scam to work, Alexandre relied on scores of people. Among them, the 50 or so he hired to work in the Manhattan office and, most importantly, the network of pastors such as John Edvard Maisonneuve, whom parishioners of his Seventh-day Adventist church said pressured them to invest.
“One of the things that’s kind of tricky about financial scams in particular is that there’s often this little sense of secrecy with them,” said Kurt Sampsel, senior manager for disinformation and community engagement at PEN America, the freedom of expression advocacy group. “Because you’re special people. I think that can be exploited.”
Abuse of that trust, Roy said, is why so many others must be prosecuted.
“Eddy Alexandre and the pastors were a mini-Madoff,” Roy said. “They knew they were doing something wrong. “This is a robbery of a community. Our job ”
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story series.
Streamline local options to make filing complaints quicker
So why have none of these employees, Alexandre’s inner circle and other facilitators being pursued more?
One local District Attorney official, speaking on background, said a complaint must be filed locally with the police for charges to be brought against any one individual. Yet, that doesn’t hold here. The victims in this particular case were spread all over, which is why the case became a federal matter to begin with. Once that criteria is met, why make people go through the hassle of local filings?
Plus, filing a local complaint is convoluted and slow. At times, it almost feels like the process is meant to discourage complaints instead of deterring crime itself.
Willy Pétion and several others in Pennsylvania are now trying that approach though. He recently filed a small claims complaint in Allegheny County, Penn. to recover the funds he said he gave directly to his pastor, Maisonneuve. Whether he’ll be victorious remains to be seen, as even the act of filing the claim itself was a multi-step affair that involved finding the right venue, going down to the courthouse, persuading others to join with him, paying the filing fees, finding Maisonneuve’s address on his own to serve him.
With the process to file a claim locally not being easy, clear-cut or cheap, how many Pétions are there among the 25,000 who are willing, able and savvy enough to pursue individual claims?
The answer: Not very many.
Pétion and others have been saying for months that “Eddy didn’t do it by himself.” If the FBI had waited just a few more weeks to make an arrest, they contend, the entire ring of suspected scammers would’ve been brought down, not just Alexandre alone.
In most PSAs for countless scams and fraud alerts, people are told to call your local police – the non-emergency precinct or social line – to report suspicious fraudulent activity.
So is there no way to help bring those local claims any quicker? Seems like an opportunity for the officials representing constituents who were victimized to show leadership.
Turn awareness and advocacy into policy, institutions
That brings us back to Simon, who offers a couple suggestions others echo: Politicians should explore creating a task force to investigate these scams, she said. She listed prominent officials such as Brooklyn Council Member Farah Louis, whose constituency includes Haitians, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and the consumer affairs agencies that tackle local fraud. They should provide the education piece missing, such as how to spot red flags, understanding the risky nature of investing and looking at the background of the people in charge.
Neither Louis nor Williams returned calls and emails seeking comment for this series about scams in the Haitian community.
Financial literacy guru Lawrence Delva-Gonzalez, from his experience, would prefer people do their own math as individuals, first and foremost. But as a collective, he said Haitians should pursue community protection models that lower the potential for fraud overall and are sustainable. In South Florida, where he grew up, Delva-Gonzalez said the Latinx community has organized its resources in a way that seems to be turning around its financial wealth story.
For example, he said, the Jose Marti Cultural Center provides free after-school care, which allows children not only to develop skills, but it lessens the burden for working parents who would otherwise have to leave work for them. That center alone relieves a financial stressor for families, thus reducing the temptation to take part in get-rich-quick schemes.
Would it also be helpful if the consumer protection bureaus, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and other bodies require that accredited financial advisors or traders disclose their financial credentials in the native language of their target consumer’s community, if that group speaks something other than English? Perhaps. Not having disclosures such as stating “this is for entertainment purposes and should not be considered financial advice” in all languages should be a red flag.
Insist that digital platforms crack down
In the end, no matter the resources are out there, local government and leaders’ efforts can only go so far. The digital platforms should play a role too in monitoring content for fraud, in all languages..
They too should boot off anyone with a channel claiming to be a financial guru or offering “financial education” courses when the content is obviously more solicitation than information. All these platforms – Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram, WhatsApp – have channels or groups dedicated to “vin’n aprann fè lajan,” Creole for ‘how to make money.’ Presenters on these platforms – whether certified as financial advisors or consultants, or not – should be required to display their credentials, or be booted off.
Ask questions. Then ask again if you don’t get it
Ultimately, however, it all comes down to the individual. It’s up to each person to decide what they want to do with their money, after all. It’s also up to that person to do their due diligence to decide. A big part of that, based on the most consistent advice, is for people to ask questions.
Problem is, many people often shy away from asking questions because they don’t want to offend the fraudster, come off as not being in-the-know or to seem “unsophisticated” in such complex matters. Fraudsters actually play on such insecurities to make their targets feel like they need the fraudster.
Therein, lies yet another trap. The mindset rooted in our culture that, ultimately, calls for discernment.
“Some of the things that are going to be most impactful are the actions that people can take to protect themselves,” Sampsel, the misinformation expert said, “in terms of employing their critical faculties, being skeptical, doing fact checks, talking to other people to try to confirm or deny information what they’re hearing. To really do their homework.”