LOS ANGELES (CN) – An Israeli filmmaker sued Los Angeles County prosecutors Wednesday, claiming they falsely imprisoned him on charges he worked with an insurance saleswoman to swindle $21.5 million from elderly victims in an elaborate Ponzi scheme.
In his federal lawsuit, Dror Soref says he spent more than 140 days for “crimes he did not commit,” and accuses Deputy District Attorney Renee Cartaya of recommending a $2.7 million bond based solely on his nationality.
Soref’s 51-page complaint says he faced no other charges and had only a single 1992 misdemeanor conviction to his name. He adds that prosecutors had no evidence he had any direct contact with investors or presented a flight risk.
His co-defendant Michelle Seward meanwhile had her bond set at $1 million, and she was released on her own recognizance not long after her arrest, Soref says.
“As a result of the negative publicity engendered by his false arrest and imprisonment, his family and reputation have been destroyed, he is unable to find meaningful employment, and any attempts to rebuild his life have been consistently foiled by the stigma associated with the unproven charges,” Soref says in his lawsuit.
In a statement, Soref said that while he had “done nothing wrong” he felt “a kinship” for the victims of the scheme.
“Therefore, I will allocate a certain portion of my award resulting from this lawsuit to these people, in the hope of alleviating some of their suffering,” he said.
In February, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor gutted the state’s criminal complaint against Soref. Pastor found prosecutors took too long to file 70 charges, under the statute of limitations.
The following month, Pastor cleared Soref by dismissing the two remaining securities counts.
Prosecutors’ 72-count complaint said Soref and Seward persuaded 140 investors to part with their life’s savings to invest in Soref’s thriller “Not Forgotten” and a musical called “Twist.” The defendants used a glossy coffee-table book in sales pitches that took place in elderly investors’ homes, and at seminars between 2007 and 2010, prosecutors claimed.
Soref had faced up to 75 years in prison if convicted. In his lawsuit, he says the criminal action tarnished his name and that “he has been unable to find work in his chosen profession – and indeed, in any profession.” He says the ordeal also led to the breakup of his marriage.
Cartaya knew as early as September 2015 that the evidence against Soref was thin, but she told the court that he was “more culpable” than Seward “based upon the bank records and the fact that he’s a signatory in the two main companies [tied to the scheme],” according to Soref’s complaint.
But Soref says at the time, prosecutors had summaries of interviews with dozens of alleged victims who said it was Seward who made contact with them and that they had “no substantive pre-investment communications whatsoever with” Soref.
“Most of the complaining witnesses had never met plaintiff or knew who he was,” Soref says in the lawsuit.
Authorities knew about the scheme as far back as October 2010, when the California Department of Business Oversight (then the California Department of Corporations) opened a file on the case. The FBI began investigating Soref and Seward as early as April 2011, the filmmaker says.
But it took prosecutors close to five years to file criminal charges, well outside the four-year limit. Soref says the earliest criminal conduct claimed by prosecutors dated back to Nov. 14, 2007.
Seward took a plea agreement in exchange for testifying against Soref. The filmmaker says he met Seward in 2005, and that a year later she said she could help him raise money for his films.
Cartaya argued during court hearings that Soref insulated himself in his company, Windsor Pictures. As Windsor’s chief executive, Soref knew that new investors’ money was being used to pay off earlier investors, she said.
An alleged victim testified at a preliminary hearing in late 2016 that she and her mother invested $315,000 in the scheme based on assurances that it was low risk. Seward persuaded investors to cash in annuities early, exposing them to harsh penalties. Seward promised returns of 10 percent to 18 percent, according to prosecutors.
The victim said she suspected the scheme was fraudulent after months of getting the runaround, and that the losses hit her mother hard.
“Mentally, my mom was very distraught,” she said.
The defendants offered investors “double-digit returns,” and some investors lost as much as $395,000, prosecutors said.
The California Department of Corporations sued Soref and Seward in 2012. Seward offered free seminars and one-on-one consultations, the state said, and lured investors by telling them she “was tired of seeing seniors being taken advantage of by the financial industry.” Seward said she would sell her million-dollar home before investors would lose a penny, according to the criminal complaint.
In 2014, Soref reached a civil settlement with the state and did not admit to any wrongdoing.
Soref seeks $10 million in damages on counts of false imprisonment, disparate treatment based on national origin, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, neglect or refusal to prevent an interference with civil rights, and recovery of attorney’s fees in vindication of civil rights.
He is represented by Etan Lorant of Woodland Hills, California.
The lawsuit also names the state of California; California Department of Business Oversight; California Department of Insurance; Los Angeles County; District Attorney Jackie Lacey and other officials.
Starring Simon Back and Paz Vega, “Not Forgotten” grossed $142,055 worldwide after a limited 2009 release, according to Box Office Mojo. Soref began his directing career making music videos for “Weird Al” Yankovic. His first film, “The Seventh Coin,” starred Peter O’Toole.
District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani said she could not comment on pending litigation.