The head of a payday lending enterprise accused of charging more than 700 percent interest on short-term loans never broke the law, his defense attorney said Thursday at the start of his federal racketeering trial in Philadelphia.
Charles M. Hallinan, 76, and his company lawyer have been charged with conspiring to evade state regulations that cap interest rates by partnering with Native American tribes and a bank that weren't subject to the same rules. In doing so, Hallinan's short-term loan businesses preyed on consumers while taking in nearly $700 million from 2008 to 2013, according to a federal indictment.
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The outside entities were used as a "front," according to the indictment, which states Hallinan's companies would provide the money, oversee debt collection and receive the revenues on the short-term loans while the tribes and bank would appear to own the lending enterprises. The practice is described in the indictment as "rent-a-bank" and "rent-a-tribe."
Yet defense attorney Edwin Jacobs insisted to jurors that Hallinan is "squeaky clean," noting that regulators such as Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation knew what they were doing and were on them "like three coats of paint."
"We're not thugs, we're not criminals, we're businesspeople," Jacobs said in U.S. District Court.
Also charged is Hallinan's long-time lawyer Wheeler K. Neff, whose attorney also said the actions laid out in the government's case were perfectly legal.
"In this case, we're dealing with legal lending models," said attorney Dennis Cogan.
But prosecutors maintained that Hallinan and his businesses, which operated under names such as Easy Cash, My Payday Advance and Instant Cash USA, exploited loopholes to get around rules intended to protect consumers.
If convicted of all charges, Hallinan faces up 12 years in prison while Neff could get at least 8 years, according to a press release issued after their indictment was unsealed.