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Cheating Death at National Prearranged Services

October 19, 2009

It is said that the only death and taxes are inevitable. But at funeral services giant National Prearranged Services, it appears that fraud was also a sure thing. The company is charged by federal authorities with running an intricate Ponzi scheme to the tune of at least $600 million.

A lawyer defending the company claimed that his clients never missed a payout – until state regulators in Texas seized the company and stopped new sales. In other words, National Prearranged Services payouts were not from real earnings but from later investors – the classic definition of a Ponzi scheme.

The NPS "Forever Fernwood" eco-cemetery in Mill Valley, California

The NPS "Forever Fernwood" eco-cemetery in Mill Valley, California

National Prearranged Services (NPS, along with its affiliated companies, Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance, Memorial Service Life Insurance, their “brand” name Forever Enterprises, and numerous other corporate entities in dozens of states) specialized in selling pre-paid funeral services: buyers pay upfront for their funeral costs, in order to spare their families the financial burden when they die. Companies like NPS are required to hold most or all of the value of the contract in trust, and the trusts are permitted to invest in secure, interest-bearing financial instruments that increase in value to keep up with inflation.

Regulators charge that NPS and its affiliates cashed-out these investments and charged “high commissions and marketing fees,” cheating policyholders, small funeral homes, state agencies and associated business partners. The federal lawsuit charges that consumers, small funeral homes and state agencies are out $600 million, although Texas regulators say the combined companies’ “negative net worth” is almost $1 billion.

NPS and its affiliates are owned and/or controlled by the Cassity family of St. Louis, celebrities in the death-care industry. Scion Doug Cassity and his two sons, Brent and Tyler were featured in an HBO documentary, “The Young and The Dead,” about reviving a Hollywood cemetery; one of the boys consulted on the hit TV series “Eight Feet Under.” A “Life Stories” project aimed to make cemeteries into places where the bereaved could view short videos of their departed loved ones. Their Marin County California “eco-friendly” cemetery was featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker magazine, and the ABC News show Nightline.

In the 1970’s, Doug Cassity was a well-known lawyer who ran an “investment club” that attracted local doctors. But by the early 1980’s the money was gone and the club was exposed as an intricate fraud, landing Cassity 6-months jail time for conspiracy and tax-fraud (he was also disbarred).

So far, criminal indictments on charges of mail fraud, money laundering, and wire fraud have been filed against NPS President Sharon Nekol Province and Chief Financial Officer Randall Sutton. Meanwhile, over a 5-year period, NPS accounting shows the company made the following payments for the personal credit cards of:

  • Doug Cassity: $3,003,649
  • Tyler Cassity: $1,010,375
  • Brent Cassity (and his wife): $542,437
  • Randall Sutton: $2,707,833

On paper, Doug Cassity appears to be broke, holding no assets in his name. Nonetheless he continues to reside in a mansion in the upscale St. Louis suburb Ladue, Missouri. Cassity also owns a $3.4 million, Gulf-view condo in Naples, Florida and, until recently, owned a Nantucket Island vacation home; he sold it for $16 million to Google CEO Eric Schmidt last year. According to local regulators in Springfield, MO, he owes almost $250,000 in unpaid electric bills relating his late 1970’s business operations.

While policy holders and small funeral homes are out hundreds of millions of dollars, the NPS bankruptcy agreement with Texas regulators exempts the Cassity family’s personal wealth and about 50 other of their business entities from liquidation.

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