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Florida Psychic Fraud Case: White-Collar Crime or Anti-Roma Bias?

After an investigation that two federal magistrate judges described as "slipshod" and "shameful," prosecutors managed to get a 15-count federal indictment against a 62-year-old woman from Fort Lauderdale who has been a practicing psychic advisor for some 40 years. The charges against her are conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and federal tax fraud, including filing false returns and/or failing to report income. She is facing up to 18 years in prison.

Prosecutors accuse the psychic of masterminding her family's allegedly fraudulent psychic advice business, costing clients $25 million. Some $17 million came from a multiple-New York Times-best-selling romance novelist. Other alleged victims refused to complain until investigators visited them multiple times to "hit them on the head" and "break the spell they were under," prosecutors were forced to admit. In an earlier indictment, "victims" were listed who were never contacted about the case.

Eight family members pled guilty to lesser charges but are not expected to testify against the defendant. Prosecutors nevertheless claim the older woman should be held responsible for their actions.

The case for psychic fraud appears to be extremely shaky, even in its current, third attempt. First, psychic advice based on Romani religious beliefs is likely protected First Amendment activity. Also, regarding the novelist particularly, there have been several alarming revelations:

According to the psychic, most of the money she earned from the novelist was as her personal assistant and Romani cultural advisor for her books, some of which she helped write. Her $1 million-a-year fee was negotiated because she gave up her business to work virtually exclusively for the writer. In fact, between 2004 and 2009 the writer's accountant claimed those fees as business expenses on her tax returns.

Additionally, the author has some questionable business ties to the investigators. She lent $35,000 to the lead investigator's business, although he claims not to have known it. She paid the wife of another between $11,000 and $16,000 to organize her finances, which has led to an internal affairs investigation. And, Fort Lauderdale Police detectives and a prosecutor assisted the author in a lawsuit she was facing.

Perhaps the prosecutor's most troubling conduct was brought to life when magistrate judges pointed to grand jury testimony which put forth negative stereotypes about the Romani, who are also known as Gypsies.

"I gave my life to these people. We're talking about clients of 20 years, 30 years, 40 years," the psychic said. "We're not talking about someone I just met and took all their money and ran off."

The federal tax fraud charges may be more serious, however. Prosecutors claim that even if the psychic earned her money honestly, she didn't pay all required taxes.

Jury selection is scheduled to start on Monday.

The federal mail fraud and wire fraud statutes are subject to abuse because the laws are overly broad and can criminalize conduct which was never intended when the laws were passed. The question must be asked - If a Romani can be prosecuted for fraud because of counseling those who seek her services, there is no end of who may be targeted. At some point adults must be free to make their own decisions as to how they spend their money.

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "Psychic fraud trial starts Monday, pits fortune teller against former clients," Paula McMahon, Aug. 25, 2013