PROVIDENCE, R.I.—"Terminal Illness? $2,000 in CASH, Immediately Available."
That was the promise of an advertisement that appeared regularly in 2007 and 2008 in the Rhode Island Catholic, the official newspaper of the local diocese. The money, the ad said, was coming from a "compassionate organization" that wanted to provide "financial assistance" for those near death.
In reality, the ad was a recruiting pitch for a plan hatched by a prominent Rhode Island estate-planning lawyer, who believed he had discovered a way to use an investment product sold by insurance companies to make no-risk bets on the stock market. He recruited dozens of terminally ill people to, in effect, serve as paid fronts for purchases of the product, variable annuities. The lawyer and other investors put tens of millions of dollars into the policies, hoping to reap a profit when the recruits died.