National Underwriter is a watchdog publication – our mission, among other things, is to be a hard, but fair critic of the life and health industry, pointing out its shortcomings so it might do better, but also pointing out where the industry is being treated unfairly in an age where the default perception most people have of insurance is a negative one.
It was with that intent that we investigated the case of Glenn Neasham, an insurance agent in California who sold an annuity to an 83-year-old woman in 2008. Even though California law allowed the sale of such products to clients up to 85 years of age, and even though Neasham’s client made money on the deal (to the tune of some $40,000), she was also revealed to be suffering from dementia at the time of the transaction. This was something Neasham claimed not to have known, but by then it was too late. Local prosecutors threw the book at him, and a jury of his peers convicted Neasham on a felony theft charge. Nesham is currently free on bail, and his jail sentence – originally 300 days but reduced to 90 days – has been postponed until the outcome of his appeal. In the meantime, Neasham’s insurance career has been ruined, as one might imagine.
Full disclosure: when I first heard of Glenn Neasham, my thought was that he must have been up to something at least a little dodgy. Who sells a 10-year financial instrument to a client who is already a few years past the national average life expectancy? There are tens of millions of people who surely need annuities more than an octogenarian; why not sell to them instead? Neasham’s choice of client seemed odd.
When I mentioned the case to friends and colleagues outside of the insurance industry, some of whom were fairly skeptical of the annuity industry in general, they had little sympathy for Neasham. The skeptics felt that annuity agents could be untrustworthy, sometimes feigning interest in the client’s financial needs mainly so they could justify the sale of products that bore good commissions.
These were smart, educated, professional people who, like most others in this country, know what they know about annuities from second-hand sources, and who had cultivated opinions largely informed by mainstream media coverage and a sense of skepticism of financial services in general. And while they figured that Neasham probably did something wrong to merit the legal attention he got, they were also quick to note that his case was happening in California, where otherwise normal legal expectations go to die. Maybe Neasham got what he deserved, they said, but maybe he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t, indeed.
I was reminded of my father, who was a lawyer. Mainly, he did real estate proceedings and civil liability work, but he was on the county’s team of volunteer public defenders as well, and sometimes, this threw him the occasional criminal defense work. Plus, he liked to take cases where he figured somebody was getting a raw deal. When I was in high school, there was a bank robbery where somebody gunned down a few patrons in cold blood. The crime shocked the entire county, and the public demanded that the robber be caught and punished. This was in Pennsylvania, mind you, where there was a death penalty. Sure enough, the police soon had their man, who was pictured on the front page of the local paper as he was walked into the police station.
I remember clearly my family and I talking about this over dinner. At one point, I looked up and told my father they had the wrong guy. My dad had already come to the same conclusion. There were several eyewitness sketches of the robber, and in each the guy was relatively clean-shaven with a mustache. The guy who was collared for the crime had these really thick mutton chop sideburns, the kind that take months to grow out. There was no way multiple witnesses could all have produced similar descriptions of the robber, and for them all to have overlooked that detail. My dad contacted this guy and offered to defend him for free. It wasn’t easy for him; he got more than a few nasty comments for defending a murderer. But in the end, my father prevailed, and his client walked away a free man. Under scrutiny, the prosecution’s evidence just didn’t hold up.