9/11 Widow Tells Cautionary Tale of Fraud

BY ROCCO PARASCANDOLA
March 17, 2008

Two months after America’s darkest day, Santa Catarelli, whose husband was killed on Sept. 11, summoned up the energy to address her family’s financial future.

On the advice of a family friend, she left her Bensonhurst home to meet Gregory E. Ronan in his Garden City law office. Without her husband, Richard Catarelli, 47, a senior vice president for insurance giant Marsh & McLennan, Santa Catarelli needed to find a safe, conservative investment for the insurance money left to her and her adult daughter, Anamarie.

Ronan calmed Santa Catarelli’s fears and told her everything would be fine. She says he suggested General Credit Corp., a check factoring company, which provides working capital financing to its customers through the discounted purchase of checks.

General Credit, she remembers him saying, was a sound investment, a company that would make her money without much worry. Catarelli, a secretary, trusted Ronan enough to invest $850,000 in General Credit.

Inside eight months, it was all gone, as General Credit filed for bankruptcy. Ronan, Catarelli remembers, appeared surprised and shocked, though she later learned he had strong ties to General Credit, as its director and as an attorney with the law firm representing the company. “He came across as very smooth, very kind, very gentlemanly,” says Catarelli, now 53.

In response, Catarelli hired lawyer Neil Greenberg, who sued Ronan, alleging he committed fraud, stole her money and violated his professional ethics by failing to disclose his connections to the company.

Ronan denied the allegations. He said he never gave Catarelli investment advice, that he also lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in General Credit, and that he never officially represented her. “I tried to help her,” he says. “I didn’t tell her to put money in the company. … Don’t you think that if I had done all of these things I would have been arrested or put in jail?”

But Brooklyn Justice Maxine Archer clearly stated in court papers that Ronan did indeed represent Catarelli and “defrauded the plaintiff.” Ronan has been ordered to pay Catarelli a total, including interest, of $1,035,500.

Remarkably, the judgment came down because he failed to show up as the lawsuit was about to go to trial. “Why would I go?” he asks. “I did nothing wrong. … But now I want to do right by her, even though I did nothing wrong.”

The conversation with Ronan took place on his cell phone. He has a home in Lloyd Harbor, but he says he was talking from Naples, Fla., where he now lives. He says he’s not hiding from anyone.

But the time and cost involved in pursuing Ronan down there is prohibitive, Greenberg says, and at this point Catarelli, who was wise enough to hold back some of her insurance money and invest it elsewhere, seems more content with telling the public what happened to her. “For the past six years I have been running to keep this hidden,” she said. “Maybe if I bring this out and let it go I can go on with my life. Every minute of every day I think of what he did to me. … I honestly feel he needs to be exposed.”

Ronan, 58, dismissed the lawsuit as a way to keep other lawyers busy.

But this is not the first time Ronan has been accused of financial fraud. A Nassau County judge in 2005 granted a $450,000 judgment to a woman who had sued Ronan for financial fraud. In Suffolk County, businessman Paul DeRoos, has a pending lawsuit against Ronan, accusing him of defrauding nearly $190,000 invested in General Credit.

DeRoos, 47, is back in his country, the Netherlands, and could not be reached for comment. But his lawyer, Larry Van Dyke, says Ronan told DeRoos, “Your money is 100 percent safe.”

Ronan denies liability in both cases. “People have a conversation with someone,” he says, “and when something goes wrong, they want to blame somebody.”