More than 18 months after he pleaded guilty to absconding with almost $5 million in premiums, a Florida insurance agent has been sentenced to 14 years in prison.
John M. Thomas, 52, the former owner of Thomas Insurance agency in Pensacola, also must pay more than $8 million in restitution, a federal judge decided this week.
“This sentence should serve as a significant deterrent to those who would defraud our citizens, in this case depriving them of critical insurance coverage, simply to unlawfully enrich themselves,” U.S. Attorney Jason Coody said in a statement.
For more than seven years, Thomas collected premium payments from at least 67 clients, then produced fraudulent policy documents and certificates purporting to show that clients were covered. Thomas used the money for personal gain, including an African safari, a Utah ski resort condominium, a Florida beach condo, a Lexus automobile and restorations to a 45-year-old Jeep vehicle, according to his 2021 indictment.
The independent agency sold homeowners, commercial property, commercial liability, auto, workers’ compensation and other lines of insurance to some well-known commercial interests in Florida and Alabama before the fraud was discovered, attorneys said.
“It appears that he was well connected with the country club set, some of whom he was taking money from,” said Craig Rettig in 2021.
Rettig is a Pensacola plaintiffs’ attorney who filed suit against Thomas on behalf of some commercial property owners who said they were defrauded. “You don’t see many insurance agents with resort condominiums and luxury cars and restored Jeeps like that.”
By failing to secure actual insurance policies, some clients lost more than $2 million in unpaid hurricane, fire and liability claims, federal prosecutors said.
After the allegations came to light in 2021, more than 15 former clients filed complaints or lawsuits against Thomas. Pensacola Beach Properties Inc. suffered damage to multiple buildings when Hurricane Sally hit the Pensacola area.
“When plaintiff began making contact with the insurance companies believed to have been providing coverage, she was informed that defendant had failed to forward payment to the insurance companies,” the lawsuit complaint noted.
That suit explained that questions also arose when a major apartment complex in Mobile, Alabama, was damaged in a fire in May 2020. The Texas-based owners contacted the insurance carrier, only to be told that Thomas had never taken out a policy on the apartments.
Thomas said there was a “mix-up” and paid $500,000 from a personal account as a downpayment on the claim, Rettig said. A second check from Thomas’ bank account bounced, and that’s when the property owners decided to take legal action.
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In another suit, a New York couple that owned a home near the beach charged that their house sustained wind and flood damage in the storm. Thomas told them he had filed the wind claim and promised to send the couple the documentation and policy. He never did, the complaint notes.
Thomas was arrested then unexpectedly pleaded guilty to the criminal charges in August of 2021. His sentencing was set for later that year. Prosecutors did not say why the sentencing had to wait for another 18 months, but court records suggest that Thomas’ pro se filings with the court may have delayed the proceedings.
In August 2022, while incarcerated, he hand-wrote a motion asking to terminate his attorney from the case. “Defendants retained counsel has consistency (sic) demonstrated material neglect with regard to … communicating with the defendant” and providing sound legal advice, the motion reads.
It’s unclear if the motions helped or hurt Thomas’ sentencing, but the length of the prison time and amount of restitution is near the maximum recommended by federal sentencing guidelines.
“Today’s sentencing should serve as a warning to anyone who uses illegal means and criminal behavior to take advantage of others,” said Sherri Onks, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville Division. “The victims in this case suffered significant loss and pain as a result of this deception, never knowing they were without insurance coverage until disaster struck.”
The prosecution resulted from a joint investigation by the FBI and the Florida Department of Financial Services’ fraud bureau, prosecutors said.
U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers recommended that Thomas serve his time in federal prison in Tucson, Arizona, or San Diego. After prison, he’ll face three years of supervised release.
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