Charges dismissed against Fresno CEO accused of swindling seniors

Gregory Steen in 2011
Gregory Steen in 2011 Fresno Bee file

Felony charges have been dismissed against a chief executive officer of a Fresno estate planning firm and three other defendants accused of swindling senior citizens out of tens of thousands of dollars.

In January 2014, Gregory Alan Steen was charged in Fresno County Superior Court with 38 felony counts of identity theft, embezzlement and grand theft.

But in July, Judge Hilary Chittick threw out half the case, saying the dismissed charges were a civil matter. Chittick also said there was barely enough evidence to support the remaining charges.

Because prosecutors must prove criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case against Steen on Aug. 17.

Steen, 54, is founder of Steen & Co., which specializes in asset protection, wealth transfers and Medi-Cal planning.

On Tuesday, Steen said he was glad his legal nightmare was over.

“My family and I are grateful to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office for their commitment to the truth,” he said.

His lawyer, Roger Wilson, said the California Department of Insurance mishandled the case. Wilson said investigators never met with Steen to resolve any concern the state agency had with him and his business. “Instead, the agency opted to engage in overzealous investigation tactics costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Wilson said.

Telephone calls to the state agency were not returned.

In an news release in November 2014, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Steen, a licensed insurance agent, allegedly mishandled clients’ funds and used them for his benefit.

“Steen and his co-conspirators have displayed a blatant disregard of the law and have stripped consumers of their money and their trust,” Jones said in the news release. “The charges they are facing are not to be taken lightly and should make others think twice before assuming they can get away with swindling seniors.”

In the investigation, which began in March 2010, state investigators accused Steen of persuading senior citizens to name him executor of their wills, giving him control of their finances. He targeted dozens of seniors and misappropriated more than $56,000, the agency alleged.

But Wilson said state investigators used “fervent investigative methods solely to cause Steen grief.”

Wilson said investigators served four search warrants, including at the home of Steen’s father, a retired Bakersfield police lieutenant. (Steen said his father started the business in Bakersfield about three decades ago.

Steen said he took over the business and moved it to Fresno in 1999.) Investigators seized 40 to 50 boxes of business documents that “caused Steen’s reputation and business to suffer immeasurably,” Wilson said.

Co-defendants Paula Ramirez, 41, of Clovis, Lisa Bennett, 45, of Fresno, and Sara Vann, 38, of Studio City in Southern California were arrested and accused of conspiring with Steen.

But in December 2014, seven felony charges of grand theft and embezzlement were dismissed against Ramirez and three felony charges were dismissed against Bennett, court records show. Vann accepted a plea deal in December 2014. She pleaded no contest to felony grand theft. In exchange, nine felony charges were dismissed.

According to court records, if Vann stays out of trouble her felony charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor in December this year.

Tuesday, Steen said his ordeal was unimaginable because investigators accused him of swindling seniors and hiding victims’ assets. “As you can imagine, I was quite saddened to learn of the accusations reported against me,” he said. “(But) once given the opportunity to present the facts, I stood confident that my actions would be seen in the correct light.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts