A local insurance agent getting charged with felony fraud after being accused of stealing more than $24,000 in commissions and pirating company files is, by most journalistic standards, newsworthy.
What makes the news of this particular agent’s arrest worthy of a column, however, is the sordid tale of betrayal told by the man from whom the money and files allegedly were stolen.
“I feel violated,” Tom Collins said last week. “I treated him like a son. I paid for his insurance education. I paid him a salary while he was taking the course and getting his license. I fed him clients, got him started and taught him the business.”
In fact, the longtime Castaway Cove resident and owner of the Tom Collins Insurance Agency also provided private, short-term financing to help his former agent, Ron D’Haeseleer, buy a house near the Vero Beach Country Club.
That’s why Collins was so stunned last year when he uncovered evidence that he said proves D’Haeseleer had been stealing from him by submitting fraudulent monthly commission statements, failing to split commissions with the agency on life insurance policies, and not deducting salary draws from end-of-the-month commission statements.
The theft, though, didn’t end there, Collins said.
Collins also accused D’Haeseleer of downloading without authorization “25 years of company files” containing 750 to 1,000 accounts and emailing them to himself one week before leaving the agency, then violating his confidentiality agreement by using the information to contact clients at his next job with Vero Insurance.
Collins said D’Haeseleer also deleted the hard drive on his company computer, but a technician found the files on the agency’s server and recovered the data.
“Maybe I was just naive, but, at first, I didn’t want to believe it,” Collins said. “The more I looked into it, though, the more I found and the angrier I got. He took advantage of a friendship.”
So, after consulting with local law enforcement agencies, Collins took his case to the Fraud Division of the Florida Department of Financial Services, which launched an investigation last September.
A year later – armed with a sworn statement from Collins, bank records and detailed documentation provided by the agency to support the allegations – DFS Det. Jonathan Lent obtained an arrest warrant charging D’Haeseleer with one count of Organized Fraud in excess of $20,000.
Assistant State Attorney Michelle McCarter said she can modify the charge, which is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, or add charges after she meets with Lent and Collins to discuss the case.
In his affidavit, Lent wrote that he believes the information gathered during his investigation establishes probable cause that D’Haeseleer violated Florida laws pertaining to “scheme to defraud” and “grand theft.”
Andy Metcalf, the Vero Beach attorney representing D’Haeseleer, said his client will plead “not guilty.”
“Ron is well-known and well-liked in our community, and I will aggressively defend his good name,” Metcalf wrote in an email. “This is a classic example of the criminal justice system being used to address issues best left to civil court.”
Collins hasn’t ruled out filing a civil lawsuit after the criminal case is resolved. He said he wants full restitution for the money he alleges was stolen from him, plus enforcement of the confidentiality agreement, which calls for double compensation for business lost as a result of any violation.
According to Lent’s affidavit, D’Haeseleer “stole” a total of $24,216.50 from Collins in 2014 and 2015 – nearly $17,000 in commissions, just under $6,000 in improper salary draws and the agency’s 50 percent share of $2,800-plus in life insurance commissions.
Collins said he discovered 350 to 400 instances of false reporting on D’Haeseleer’s commission statements during the agent’s last two years with the agency.
“There was a time I thought he might be the heir to my agency,” Collins said. “And he does this?”
At the same time, Collins said he started noticing what he called a “sense of entitlement” in D’Haeseleer, who worked for him from July 2011 until November 2015, after offering to help his budding agent buy a house in 2014.
D’Haeseleer found a home on Par Drive but was unable to secure the $200,000 in financing he needed from a commercial lender. Upon hearing of his employee’s dilemma, Collins offered to provide a private mortgage until the agent could qualify for a bank loan.
“I even let him pick what he thought was a fair rate,” Collins said. “He said 6 percent, and that was fine with me.”
Then, Collins said, D’Haeseleer asked him to split a $1,100 attorney’s fee connected to the loan, which Collins thought was odd, given his generosity. Odd, though, soon became bizarre.
Collins said D’Haeseleer contacted the local real-estate attorney who handled the transaction and, reminding her that he had sent business her way, asked her to waive her fee. And she agreed.
“So Ron came to me and said that, since he got the attorney to waive her fee, I owed him $550 – my half of the $1,100 he didn’t have to pay,” Collins said. “I told him that was ridiculous, and he started arguing with me.
“Finally, I told him I’d call two trusted friends of mine who run businesses and ask them,” he continued. “I told him that if either of them said I owed him the money, I’d give him the $550 … Both said I shouldn’t pay it.
“When I called him and told him what they said, he started screaming at me,” he added. “That was the start of the downfall, the beginning of the end.”
Collins said he continued to treat D’Haeseleer “with respect as a member of our office,” and the agent did eventually get the financing he needed to pay off Collins.
There was a hiccup in November 2014, when Collins discovered in an email that D’Haeseleer had given himself a promotion to “Vice President, Commercial Division” of the agency.
Collins responded with an email that read: “Just noticed you gave yourself a new title. What are you thinking? Change it NOW to previous – commercial associate agent.”
It was in September 2015, Collins said, that he noticed D’Haeseleer paid himself 40 percent on renewals, not the agreed-upon 30 percent of the 10 percent commission the agency receives from policy premiums. Only on new policies do his agents get 40 percent of the agency’s commissions.
Curious, Collins said he then checked D’Haeseleer’s commission statement from the previous month and found more of the same, prompting him to go back to the beginning of the year.
“I found that he paid himself 40 percent instead of 30 percent in five of the eight months,” Collins said. “That came to about $3,000 or $4,000, so I emailed Ron and told him there appeared to be an error in his commission report. And I asked him to check other months.
“He emailed me back and said it was a mistake and it was only that one month. When I asked him to check the whole year, he knew that I had caught him. Then, when he gave me his October commission statement, I looked it over closely and saw numerous inconsistencies, all in his favor, worth $400 or $500.
“I sent him an email about it, and when he brought it back to my office, he said, ‘This is my last day.’ Two days later, he was at Vero Insurance.”
But not for long.
After learning that D’Haeseleer had contacted some of his clients, Collins contacted Vero Insurance, explained what was happening and produced documentation of his allegations.
Shortly afterward, D’Haeseleer was no longer employed by Vero Insurance. He then took a job with Brown & Brown Insurance in Vero Beach, where, according to his LinkedIn page, he was still working last week.
“I’ve known Ron since he was 10 years old,” Collins said. “I knew his mom and dad; we were friends. One reason I gave Ron the opportunity was because his father and Don Proctor sent commercial business my way and helped me get my agency started.
“Maybe that’s why I put up with his complaining about the $550,” Collins said. “Maybe that’s why I put up with the 40 percent commissions. But then when he left, he took the deleted files and was calling my clients, asking them to move their business.
“That’s betrayal,” he added. “That’s when I knew he was a bad guy.”
A court will decide whether he’s a criminal.