Claude Pepper

On Capitol Hill when one thinks of the word “indefatigable” one thinks of Rep. Claude Pepper who, at 87 years of age, presents a mixture of strategic energy and perpetual motion on behalf of elderly Americans.

As chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, he holds shocking hearings and releases hardhitting reports on the subject of fraud on the elderly.

From Cong. Pepper’s offices come documentation of illegal practices by Medigap companies who apply their gouging and deceptive ways in the long-term health care market as well. He doesn’t stop there. He asks: why are there gaps in the government’s insurance coverage that open a market for these fleecers. A million Americans a year become destitute trying to pay the cost of catastrophic illness and many are in nursing homes.

Quackery — the promotion of medical schemes or remedies known to be false, or which are unproven, for a profit — cost consumers ten billion dollars a year. Many of the victims are elderly and incur pain, delay of effective relief or mortal illness as a result. Spurious cures for arthritis and cancer and, anti-aging remedies head this large commercial racket.

Fraudulent financial investment schemes descend on elderly folks. Telemarketing of these investment swindles out of boiler room operations seem to proliferate beyond the range of law enforcement drives. Arbitrary credit denials to older adults, especially women who are widowed or divorced, fill many case files of the American Association of Retired Persons. The Reagan government is not interested in enforcing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to help these people.

Then there is the perennial — hearing aid fraud, so full of manipulative sales pressures, deceptive advertising, phony tests and other rip-offs that many elderly are content to receive a vastly over-priced product just so long as it works for them. State licensing boards and state attorneys general don’t win any awards for diligent crackdowns in this area.

Claude Pepper wants to give fraud victims new rights and remedies to take the profits out of such consumer abuses. He has introduced H.R. 2898 to correct two deficiencies in existing laws. First, under current mail and wire fraud statutes, the perpetrators of fraud are often allowed to keep their profits or proceeds even after serving a prison sentence or paying a small fine. Second, these laws do not require restitution to consumers for their losses.

For example, in Hawaii, two defendants were convicted of swindling $36 million in a time shares racket. But they were not required to return any monies to their victims. A Georgia businessman had a quack products empire that sold baldness cures, weight loss products and other phony nostrums which grossed over $1 million a month. He grossed $75 million in 12 years before being convicted to serve 3 years in jail. After leaving prison, he was free to reclaim his profits.

Rep. Pepper’s legislation would authorize the government to deprive violators of their illicit profits and require that the seized profits and proceeds be returned to their rightful owners, the defrauded persons.

You would think that such a bill was long overdue, replete with common sense and a valuable instrument for restoring ill-begotten monies to their rightful owners. You would think that, given the widespread recognition of the many billions of dollars stolen by this business crime wave every year, both the White House and the legislators would move to passage.

Since the bill’s introduction last November, the right to sign on has not reached avalanche proportions on Capitol Hill. Before the fraud merchants begin to wax complacent, however, they should remember that Claude Pepper is a long distance runner who, as amply illustrated in his recent biography, Pepper, Eyewitness to a Century, has won many times against the odds. Are your Representative and Senators on board regarding H.R. 2898? It will help to ask them.

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