WRAL Investigates

Wilson insurance agent pleads guilty to phony tobacco claims

Posted October 21, 2009 12:43 p.m. EDT
Updated October 21, 2009 7:11 p.m. EDT

— A well-known Wilson insurance agent pleaded guilty Wednesday to using phony tobacco insurance claims to cheat the U.S. government out of millions of dollars.

Robert "Carl" Stokes, 58, pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder money, conspiring to make false statements, making false statements, mail fraud and wire fraud. He will be sentenced later.

"I'm guilty as can be," he said in court Wednesday.

Stokes owned Hallmart Agency Inc. and sold crop insurance policies for agricultural products, including tobacco. He also ran a check-cashing business in the same location, according to an indictment against him.

Federal agents say he posted some of the highest numbers for crop losses among insurance agents across the country. After an undercover sting operation, agents said they determined that some of his business dealings were fraudulent.

Fernan Sanchez, 41, of Warsaw, and Mark Davis Pridgen, 62, of Wilson, also pleaded guilty in the case Wednesday. Both will be sentenced later.

Pridgen helped Stokes organize the scheme, authorities said. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder money, conspiring to make false statements, making false statements, mail fraud and wire fraud.

Sanchez cashed more than $1 million in bogus tobacco checks at his Warsaw business and then lied to investigators, authorities said. He pleaded guilty to making false statements.

Agents said Stokes worked with a group of tobacco farmers, tobacco warehouse men, crop insurance adjusters and others.

He recruited them to "take out insurance policies through Hallmart, to make false crop insurance claims and to hide some or all of their tobacco production by selling it in nominee names or for cash to co-conspirating warehouse men," according to court documents.

"The co-conspirating farmer profits under the scheme because he gets paid twice for each pound of tobacco," documents showed.

Nine other men previously pleaded guilty to various charges in the case: Kenneth Kelly, Roland McCoy Jr., Joseph Edward Williams of Zebulon, Robert Veasey of Durham, David Harrison of Snow Hill, William Earl Dawson of Statonsburg, Robert Lemuel Dawson of Statonsburg, Travis E. Wilson of Cove City and Dennis Hawley of Wilson.

Authorities said the case remains under investigation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has investigated 35 cases of criminal activity in crop insurance rates since 2006, according to statistics provided by the USDA. Of those, 30 resulted in indictments and 20 in convictions.

The government won more than $18.5 million in restitution, forfeitures, fines and penalties imposed upon people or entities who owe the government money.