A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court agreed Tuesday to reverse and remand a legal decision that had represented a rare court defeat for the receiver of defunct Ponzi scheme ZeekRewards.com.
ZeekRewards operated out of a Lexington office from January 2011 to Aug. 17, 2012, when it was shut down by federal officials.
At $939 million and at least 2.2 million domestic and global participants, ZeekRewards was one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history, federal prosecutors have said.
On May 3, a federal district court judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by Kenneth Bell against VictoriaBank SA of Moldova. Bell filed his appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court on May 24.
The lawsuit represents one of the few loose ends left for Bell in his efforts to recoup ZeekRewards-related funds from domestic and international financial institutions and internet payment-processing companies.
At stake: Up to $13.17 million in potential ZeekRewards assets held by VictoriaBank that had been ordered frozen in February 2016 by federal judge Graham Mullen of the Western District of N.C. Mullen gave Bell permission to pursue assets from VictoriaBank, Payza and Payment World LLC.
Mullen approved freezing $15.5 million of assets in VictoriaBank accounts with the Bank of New York Mellon. Mullen also approved finding the financial institutions in contempt of a court order freezing and preserving the assets if they failed to turn over the assets.
VictoriaBank has argued the federal district court lacked personal jurisdiction over the case, and that Bell had failed to “effect appropriate service of process.”
The appeals panel ruled the district court “erred in requiring the receiver to prove jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence because it substantially curtailed jurisdictional discovery.”
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused Rex Venture Group LLC, Zeekler, ZeekRewards.com and Paul Burks, their principal owner, of raising $939 million through unregistered securities. The companies were shut down and their assets frozen.
The companies raised the money from at least 230,000 U.S. participants, including at least 47,000 in North Carolina.
Burks was sentenced in March 2017 to three concurrent prison sentences of 14 years and eight months for his lead role in the scheme.
Payza and Payment World are payment-processing companies, also known as e-wallets, with global networks that Bell said “facilitated the ZeekRewards Ponzi scheme in furtherance of their own financial interest.”
A percentage of payments processed by Payza and Payment World were held in reserve by VictoriaBank to cover any potential charge-backs, reversals and “other potential risks.”
Bell has defined net winners as those who had a net gain of at least $1,000. He had said there are about 9,400 net winners worldwide owing about $200 million.
In August, a federal judge approved final judgment on 73 regional and 494 statewide net winners.
For the 14-county region of the Triad and Northwest North Carolina, a combined $2.04 million was won by 73 net winners, along with a combined $701,703 in pre-judgment interest as of Dec. 31. The interest is based on the N.C. statutory rate of 8 percent per annum since ZeekRewards was shut down by federal regulators.
Many of the largest net winners have failed to answer or cooperate in the action. There is a strong likelihood some net winners don’t have much, if any, of that money on them.
Bell said in December he expects to need most of 2018 before closing the legal case and making one more distribution, which would raise the reimbursement rate for victims from 75 percent to as much as 80 percent.
As of Dec. 31, Bell has recovered $371.2 million and disbursed $344.7 million to eligible victims.
Bell said $25 million remains in a reserve account that could be dispersed to victims who complete their required release and tax statements.