Police arrest disaster chaser
Louisiana State Police arrested the head of a Palos Verdes-based disaster recovery company Thursday on suspicion of stealing more than $320,000 from victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Steve Slepcevic, the 41-year old founder and chief executive officer of Paramount Disaster Recovery Inc., evaded authorities for days before arriving at St. Tammany Parish courthouse in a white 7 Series BMW to turn himself in, said Eric Adams, senior trooper with the Louisiana State Police.
His former business partner and Paramount attorney Matthew Todd was arrested in California early Monday morning and is in a Los Angeles County jail awaiting extradition to Louisiana. Another former Paramount employee, Michael Mekeel, 38, has agreed to turn himself in to authorities in the coming days, Adams said.
The three are accused of conspiring to use forged checks to steal insurance proceeds from hurricane victims, according to warrants and an affidavit filed in early September. Slepcevic is also accused of four counts of money laundering, the court records say.
The arrests come two months after a Times investigation found that Paramount had left a trail of fraud complaints, lawsuits and government investigations from Mississippi to California over the last decade. Slepcevic and his company have eluded authorities thanks to lackluster enforcement and the loose web of state regulations that govern roving insurance adjusters and contractors known as storm chasers, the investigation found.
An attorney for Slepcevic declined to comment Thursday. Paramount’s attorney did not return several calls. Todd’s attorney, Gary Olive, said his client “looks forward to his day in court.”
Mekeel, reached on his cellphone in Nevada, described himself as a disgruntled former Paramount subcontractor who was not paid for his work in Louisiana and quit after six months. He said that he warned his clients and informed the FBI about Paramount’s activities but that “nobody wanted to listen.”
“I’m just as much a victim as anybody else, and I’m not guilty of any of the charges they brought against me,” said Mekeel, who says he plans to turn himself in to authorities soon, despite a wedding planned for next month.
In June, The Times cited an affidavit in which Sam Ratanji, one of Paramount’s clients, said Mekeel told him that Slepcevic and Todd had used the stolen insurance proceeds to throw a lavish party and buy California real estate. Property records show Slepcevic purchased a $1.6-million home in Redondo Beach six months after Hurricane Katrina.
The Louisiana case stems from complaints filed by two homeowners and two hotel owners who hired Paramount after the 2004 hurricane. Paramount presented itself as a disaster recovery company that could help negotiate settlements with insurance companies in exchange for 20% of the settlement, Adams said in an affidavit.
The Paramount employees returned to California, forged their clients’ names on insurance checks and deposited the money in Paramount bank accounts, the affidavit says.
“They took my insurance check and kept the money,” said Danny Denoux, a former New Orleans police officer who filed one of the complaints against Paramount. “While my wife was cooking on a hot plate on the second floor for a year because we had no kitchen, I’m sure [Paramount employees] were basting on the beach with my . . . money.”
Adams, who was assigned the case last September, said he was surprised that other law enforcement agencies had not pursued the case sooner. Authorities he contacted in two other states said they were not doing anything, and the local FBI office told him “it’s a California issue,” Adams said.
“It’s not a complex scheme,” Adams said. But “when they cross state lines, they make it difficult for these agencies to chase them.”
The Texas attorney general is investigating Paramount’s activities there in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Civil litigation against the company is pending in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
In California, the Contractors State License Board has referred three cases to the attorney general, which will file a complaint seeking revocation of Paramount’s license in the coming weeks, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Jim Ledakis.
The attorney general’s office is also seeking $170,000 for a 2007 settlement between Paramount and the California Department of Insurance, which accused Slepcevic, Todd and another Paramount employee of falsely representing themselves as public adjusters to victims of the Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe. Since the settlement, the insurance department has received five more complaints but determined that it did not have jurisdiction to investigate them.