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5 accused as loansharks of immigrant businesses

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Authorities last week shut down a New Jersey business that is accused of lending money at exorbitant interest rates to a hundred small businesses in Queens, many of them owned by immigrants who speak little English. Five individuals were charged, the Queens district attorney said.

The people involved in the business, based in Red Bank, N.J., are accused of fanning out across Flushing, Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in search of small business owners who believed they could not obtain loans from banks or lending institutions, said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. Two of the defendants in the case are from Queens.

The borrowers, including many recent immigrants, were charged excessively high interest rates, in some cases as much as 260 percent a year, until they could pay the loans off in full, Brown said. In all, the business is said to have netted $550,000 a year in interest, largely on loans entered into by the 100 Queens businesses, and to a lesser extent by 50 others in Jersey City, N.J., Bayonne, N.J., Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, the district attorney said.

The five individuals who were arrested — Pasquale Fermo, 69, of New Jersey; Maria Rodriguez, 55, of Jackson Heights; Louis Rodriguez, 55, of the Bronx; Anna Ponce, 49, of Elmhurst; and Josefina Joniaux, 53, of Jamaica — were each charged with enterprise corruption, under the state’s Organized Crime Control Act, and with 23 counts of criminal usury. They face up to 25 years in prison if convicted, the district attorney said.

According to the indictment, Fermo, who controlled the day-to-day operation, would seek out debtors in neighborhoods with strong immigrant populations, allegedly offering loans to the owners of small businesses who assumed that they could not borrow through normal lending means. Then they would sign with Fermo, who would set the interest rate and conditions, the indictment said.

On a $5,000 loan, for instance, with a 260 percent interest rate, the borrower would have to pay $250 a week, the district attorney said.

“Many of his alleged victims are small business owners, including many recent immigrants who speak little English,” Brown said, “who were forced to endure usurious rates as well as threats and intimidation in order to survive and support their families.”

The other four defendants allegedly served as Fermo’s debt collectors, accepting payments from the owners while looking for new businesses, Brown said. The collectors would put the money in envelopes, addressed to Fermo, and then mail them to him. In some instances, the collectors would work from their own businesses, the district attorney said.

For instance, Rodriguez, known as “Louis the Barber,” would have borrowers come to his barbershop at 39-42 62nd St. in Flushing, where he would allegedly collect payments, Brown said. The other collectors used their businesses for these purposes as well, the district attorney said.

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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