White-collar criminal Joseph Anthony Florendo Mele, 31, of Ventura, was sentenced this week to 10 years in state prison on convictions related to taking financial advantage of two senior women while he worked as an insurance agent in Ventura.
Mele had pleaded no contest on November 12, 2015, to multiple charges of financial elder abuse, as well as grand theft, embezzlement, money laundering, and filing false tax returns. His annuity scam totaled $2 million and spanned seven years, according to a California Department of Insurance press release. He was sentenced Thursday in Santa Barbara Superior Court by Judge Clifford Anderson to seven felony counts and two sentencing enhancements — the first a 3-year enhancement for repeated “white collar crime;” the second a two-year general enhancement for theft over $200,000, said prosecutor Deputy District Attorney Gary Gemberling. Mele was immediately placed into custody following his sentence.
Mele met his victims while working at Mele & Associates Senior Insurance Services, his father Anthony Mele’s business. The younger Mele portrayed himself as a financial planner in order to gain the trust of a 74- and a 93-year-old woman — one a Santa Barbara County resident and one a Ventura County resident. In June 2007, he sold his oldest victim “$1,154,268 in long-term annuities,” according to the Department of Insurance.
He “began purchasing, selling, and repurchasing long-term annuities,” in addition to other types of insurance, “without the victims’ knowledge,” according to the DA’s Office. Joseph Mele’s unlawful “churning” of those policies left him with “several hundred thousand dollars” worth of commission and his victims with more than “$400,000” in surrender fees, lost penalties, and premiums.
Saying the 93-year-old client needed to “move quickly on investments,” Mele had her sign eight blank checks in early 2013. From February 2013 until September 2014, Mele wrote “$800,000 worth of checks to himself for cash,” which he deposited into his own bank account. He spent a large portion of the elderly woman’s life savings on “dining out, plastic surgery, elaborate vacations, sporting events, wedding photographs, and school tuition,” according to the DA’s Office.
The 93-year-old victim’s bank, Montecito Bank & Trust, had contacted Adult Protective Services about suspicious activity in her account, as previously reported in The Santa Barbara Independent. The county agency notified the police. By the time the theft was realized, the victim’s savings had dropped from nearly $1.5 million to $200,000. Mele was arrested on charges of financial elder abuse and grand theft and booked into Santa Barbara County Jail early last June. He bailed out after Judge Anderson reduced his bail from $800,000 to $100,000.
The California Department of Insurance and the Franchise Tax Board worked with Santa Barbara City Police and Gemberling to prosecute the defendant, who was represented by Santa Barbara attorney Samuel Eaton. According to the state’s Department of Insurance, Mele convinced his 74-year-old victim to “surrender her annuities early,” costing her $80,000 worth of surrender penalties and lost premium and interest, as well as tax liability. The department took legal action to permanently revoke his insurance license, as similarly stated in a press release.
In the DA’s Office release, Dudley praised investigator Tamara Kessler of the California Department of Insurance. “Investigator Kessler was able to recover all surrender fees, penalties, and interest from the insurance companies, which would otherwise have been lost.” “This allowed the victims to feel some sense of financial stability and security,” Dudley added. One victim, who was afraid she might lose her home, was able to keep it with the recovered money.