Federal authorities charged a pioneer in the multibillion-dollar payday-loan industry Thursday in the Justice Department's latest and largest case aimed at stifling abusive lenders who have evaded state and federal regulation with stunning efficiency.
Prosecutors allege that Charles M. Hallinan - a 75-year-old former investment banker, a Wharton School graduate, and a Main Line resident - dodged each new law meant to stifle usurious loans by paying established banks and Native American tribes to serve as fronts for his loan companies.
The tactics he originated in the late '90s - dubbed "rent-a-bank" and "rent-a-tribe" by industry insiders - have since been widely imitated by other short-term lenders as more than a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, have banned or restricted payday lending.
The 17-count indictment pegs revenue for 18 Hallinan-owned loan companies with names that include Instant Cash USA, My Next Paycheck, and Your Fast Payday at $688 million between 2008 and 2013. The firms made their money by charging interest rates approaching 800 percent to hundreds of thousands of low-income borrowers searching for a financial stopgap to make it to their next paycheck, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said in a statement.
"These defendants were taking advantage of the economically desperate," he said. "Their alleged scheme violates the usury laws of Pennsylvania and several other states, which exist to protect consumers from profiteers."
Hallinan declined to comment after a brief appearance in federal court in Philadelphia. Dressed in a blue blazer with gold buttons, he pleaded not guilty to counts of racketeering conspiracy, a charge federal authorities are better known for using to bust Mafia loan-sharking operations.
To mount his defense, Hallinan has turned to Edwin Jacobs, a lawyer renowned for helping Philadelphia mob figures beat racketeering charges tied to extortionate loans.
Jacobs twice represented reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joseph Ligambi in a federal loan-sharking case. Both times jurors deadlocked, and Ligambi walked free in 2014. Jacobs did not return calls for comment Thursday.
Hallinan's corporate legal adviser, Wheeler K. Neff, a 67-year-old lawyer from Wilmington, also was charged Thursday.
Neff's lawyer, Christopher D. Warren, previously won an acquittal for former mob consigliere and Ligambi nephew George Borgesi in the same case in which his uncle had been charged.
In a statement issued with cocounsel Dennis Cogan, Warren called the case against Neff and Hallinan "ill-advised" and predicted prosecutors would fail.
"The government's charges are an unwarranted assault on a popular legal lending program for no other reason than it is now deemed politically incorrect in some government circles," the statement read.
Hallinan's companies, according to the statement, provided "convenient, immediate short-term credit . . . to millions of moderate-income, employed borrowers to help them meet their occasional financial shortfalls."
The Justice Department and banking authorities have made chasing abusive payday lenders a priority in recent years as the industry has proliferated despite efforts by more than a dozen states to shut them down.
Hallinan is at least the fifth lender to face indictment since 2014, including a Jenkintown man who pleaded guilty to counts of racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud last year.
But Hallinan launched his foray into the business early, using $120 million he earned by selling a landfill company to begin offering payday loans by phone in the 1990s. Much of the business has since drifted to the Internet.
As states started to crack down, Neff helped Hallinan to adapt and is quoted in the indictment as suggesting they seek out opportunities in "usury friendly" states.
Hallinan developed a lucrative agreement starting in 1997 with County Bank of Delaware, a state in which payday lending remained unrestricted. Prosecutors say Hallinan's companies paid County Bank to solicit borrowers in states with stiff usury laws and to act as the lender on paper.
In reality, the indictment alleges, Hallinan funded, serviced, and collected all of the loans and paid County Bank only to use its name as a front.
In 2003, New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer filed suit against the bank and two of Hallinan's companies, accusing them of violating the state's anti-usury laws. The case was settled in 2008 for $5.5 million, and federal regulators have since ordered County Bank to cease its dealings with payday lenders.
But that did not stop Hallinan. He began contracting in 2003 with federally recognized Native American tribes, which could claim tribal sovereign immunity, protecting them from enforcement and lawsuits.
Much like his arrangement with County Bank, Hallinan paid tribes in Oklahoma, California, and Canada as much as $20,000 a month between 2003 and 2013 to use their names to issue usurious loans across state lines, prosecutors said.
When a 2010 class-action lawsuit filed in Indiana against one of their companies threatened to run their "rent-a-tribe" strategy aground, Neff and Hallinan allegedly began paying Randall Ginger, a man representing himself as the hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation in British Columbia, to say he was the firm's sole proprietor and to hide Hallinan's involvement.
Ginger asserted that he had next to no assets to pay out a court judgment, prompting the case's nearly 1,400 plaintiffs to settle their claims in 2014 for a total of $260,000.
Ginger, 66, was charged Thursday alongside Hallinan and Neff with conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering.
Hallinan, according to his lawyer, left the payday lending industry behind soon after the Indiana suit.
He was released Thursday on a $500,000 bond, staking his $2.3 million home in Villanova as collateral.