Filmmaker Cleared of $21 Million Ponzi Charges
March 17, 2017
LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Superior Court judge Thursday dismissed criminal securities fraud charges against a filmmaker whom prosecutors accused of working with an insurance saleswoman to swindle $21.5 million from victims in a Ponzi scheme.
After his arrest in September 2015, Soref was jailed for five months, including a stint in Men’s Central Jail after a judge set bail at $2.7 million.
Soref, wearing a black suit and tie, spent much of the morning hearing hunched in his seat, occasionally consulting with his lawyers. He turned and smiled at friends and family as Pastor ruled the government had failed to provide any shred of evidence that he was part of a Ponzi scheme.
“Good luck to you, Mr. Soref,” Pastor said at the close of the hearing.
Flanked by his friends and wife Virginia, Soref said outside the courtroom that he was happy the judge had exonerated him. His time in jail severely hurt his career and kept him away from his daughter, who was 5 at the time of his arrest, he said.
“I’m very relieved because I can start my life again. There’s a lot to rebuild because it was devastated. But I don’t have that [legal] issue to deal with. And I just want to thank my fantastic lawyers and my amazing friends and family,” he said.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor dismissed the charges against award-winning Hollywood director Dror Soref: misrepresentation of a material fact in connection with the offer or sale of a security; and using a device, scheme or artifice to defraud in connection with the offer or sale of a security.
Seward entered into a plea agreement in exchange for testifying against Soref in trial, though due to the judge’s decision, Soref would not be ‘held to answer’ in a trial. This made the deal fruitless from the prosecution standpoint, benefiting the truly culpable person in the whole affair: Michelle Seward. Altman shamed the prosecution for the deal, asserting Seward was the linchpin of the scheme, and that Soref was unwittingly caught up in Seward’s machinations, and was only interested in making the indie thriller.
Altman said there was a “dramatic lack of evidence” linking Soref to the crime, and that Seward and her brother Jeremy LeClair had solicited the investments.
Deputy District Attorney Renee Cartaya argued that Soref insulated himself in his company, Windsor Pictures. “It’s clear he’s the man controlling the bank accounts,” Cartaya said. But she failed to persuade Judge Michael Pastor. He said that though the bar for establishing probable cause is “extremely low,” the government’s evidence against Soref was insufficient.
After the ruling, Cartaya hastily left the courtroom and did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.
Soref said his reputation was brutally damaged by the charges, that there is more to the story and hinted that legal action could follow.
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Film director fights for his future
August 9, 2017
The next movie film director Dror Soref is inclined to make might be called Rebel With a Cause.
It’s about a guy who just wants to make movies who gets falsely accused of ripping people off in an alleged Ponzi scheme, arrested while naked, put behind bars, losing everything in the process—his money, his house, his reputation—only to sit one day in court and hear “you’re free to go” and the “criminal case against you is dismissed.”
Soref has a fire in his belly after the criminal case against him was dismissed in March. And he’s fired up to regain his reputation.
An Israeli filmmaker who immigrated to the United States, Soref first attended San Francisco Art Institute, and then the Cinema School of the University of Southern California. Paying his dues along the way, he directed his share of commercials and music videos.
But then his debut feature film as a writer and director, however, won festival awards in 1993, including Best Picture. The movie was ‘The Seventh Coin’ starring the late Peter O’Toole. And now, he’s eager to get back on track.
“I want to do a film about equal justice under the law,” Soref said quietly with an easy wry smile that hid any indication he lost nearly two years of his life.
“I want to address the whole issue of justice,” he said, still smiling. “I’m joining different groups, all relating to the pursuit of justice and alleviating human suffering.”
Dror Soref is serious and he’s committed.
Today Soref filed a lawsuit for false imprisonment and an “unconstitutional deprivation of liberty” against a number of institutions that helped in his arrest.
He’s suing the California’s Department of Business Oversight—formerly known as the California Department of Corporations—the California Department of Insurance, the County of Los Angeles, District Attorney Jackie Lacey and others.
For close to two years, county prosecutors were just as serious and just as committed to seeing Soref land behind bars.
After an unusually long five weeks of preliminary hearing – a process which normally takes a couple of days—during which prosecutors tried to convince the judge the case should go to trial, the judge found no reason Soref should stand trial.
Resigned to the judge’s decision, DA spokesman Ricardo Santiago told The Signal at the time: “On March 16, 2017, the case was dismissed after not being held to answer at the preliminary hearing,”
The case against Seward was later dismissed pursuant to a deal she made with the DA’s office in which she agreed to testify against Soref in trial. In addition “Seward agreed to return $1.13 million to more than 40 victims, many of whom are elderly,” DA spokesman Greg Risling told The Signal last month. “The money has since been paid.”
Soref said he will never forget the day he got his freedom back.
“The judge said a preliminary hearing has a very low standard to go to trial. So I’m thinking ‘we’re going
to go to trial.’
“Then he said but, there is a standard.”
At this point in the story, Dror Soref is beaming.
“He said ‘there is a standard and a quantum of evidence that is required to take it to trial and the prosecution was not able to provide that,’” he said.
The judge dismissed all charges against Soref, making him suddenly a free man that day in court.
“I looked at my family and friends, all smiling. It was over. I felt such relief. That was a really great thing.
“Then, I wanted to ask the judge ‘Where do I go to get my reputation back? Which department in this huge building do I go to get it back?’
It would be easy if there was simply an office in the courtroom where ruined reputations could be restored.
The reality, Soref has been learning he said, is a long and lonely road.
Asked to describe it, he said: “An iron curtain.”
“I started writing press releases for a friend,” he said. “Nobody else would hire me. I was ignored completely by agents who did not call me back.
“I knew it was all over,” he said, noting in his reflection “But some people were amazing, really fantastic.”
The Movie ‘Not Forgotten’ starring Simon Baker of The Mentalist fame on TV and Chloe Grace Moretz was released in 2009.
The film is a story that takes place in a Tex-Mex border town where a man and his wife face their tortured pasts as they struggle to save their kidnapped daughter.
To hear Soref describe it, the movie is the “story of a man who starts anew.”
Then, suddenly, the irony hits him.
Dror Soref is a man starting anew and, if he has his way, “not forgotten.”
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Filmmaker Sues L.A. County and State Officials Claiming “False Imprisonment”
August 9, 2017
‘Not Forgotten’ director Dror Soref — who had been accused of a Ponzi scheme before being fully exonerated — filed a $40 million lawsuit claiming false imprisonment and bias.
A filmmaker who had been falsely accused of a Ponzi scheme in raising money for an independent movie is suing a slew of state agencies and officials claiming they are responsible for destroying his reputation and his career when they falsely imprisoned him for five months while demanding an unreasonably high bail before setting him free.
Dror Soref filed his $40 million lawsuit Wednesday, claiming his initial $2.7 million bail — more than a typical accused murderer would receive, his attorney noted at the time — was the result of bias, given he was deemed a “flight risk” due to the fact he is an Israeli national as well as a U.S. citizen.
The charges against Soref were eventually dropped, but not before he was incarcerated for about 140 days while his partner at the time, Michelle Seward, was arrested and immediately released on her own recognizance despite identical charges against her, according to the lawsuit.
Soref and Seward formed a partnership to make the film Not Forgotten, a movie Soref directed, while it was Seward’s job to raise funding for the film. Not Forgotten, released in theaters in 2009, was reviewed (Download review: Download) positively in The Hollywood Reporter , as noted in the lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Law Offices of Etan Z. Lorant in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Soref’s attorneys argue that not only did their client not commit the crimes he was accused of but that he was also improperly arrested and charged in 2015 partially because the statute of limitations had run out “on the overwhelming number of counts.”
Soref began his career directing music videos for “Weird Al” Yankovic; he also directed Peter O’Toole in The Seventh Coin and maintained a 25-year relationship with Paramount Pictures. Soref was also CEO of commercial production company Orbit Productions, directed episodes of The Power Rangers TV show and co-produced Basic with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, though he has found it impossible to get work since his arrest and the resulting publicity, which includes numerous news stories.
Soref’s criminal defense attorney at the time, Bryan Altman of the Altman Law Group, argued that Soref was not culpable for the alleged crime, as the judge later confirmed. It was Seward given her role to deal with all financial matter relating to investors, though she was set free immediately, while he languished in custody. The lawsuit notes that many of the 140 investors never met Soref, only Seward.
Citing a conversation between the court and Renee Cartaya of the District Attorney’s Office, the lawsuit says it was acknowledged Soref had a wife and three children living in California at the time and that there was no indication he had traveled internationally for 10-20 years, yet Cartaya argued he was a flight risk based on “ties to Israel.” Soref’s attorneys now claim such an argument is a ‘discrimination based on national origin.’
The lawsuit also says Cartaya and others “were in possession of substantial amounts of evidence that had not been made available to (Soref), including summaries of interviews from dozens of complaining witnesses, all of whom confirmed that all alleged misrepresentations came from co-defendant Seward and that they had had no substantive pre-investment communications whatsoever with (Soref).”
It also states that Soref, a U.S. citizen who resided in Los Angeles County for 40 years and was the adoptive father of a young child, “spent approximately 140 days in jail on charges that should never have been brought because the statute of limitations had run, had no legal merit, and because an unreasonable bail was set, for no other reason than that he had ties to Israel.”
Soref is suing the State of California Department of Business Oversight, the California Department of Insurance, the County of Los Angeles and several individuals involved in the case at the time, including Cartaya, Jackie Lacey of the D.A.’s office, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, Commissioner of Business Oversight Jan Lynn Owen, attorney Blaine Noblett and insurance investigator June Arago.
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Dror’s Story: Efficiency and Justice Have Nothing to Do with Each Other
“Daddy! There are policeman at the front door.”
Dror Soref was in the shower when his five-year old daughter, Lili, burst into the room with the exclamation.
It seemed silly to him at the time. “We’re in a really affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles,” says Soref, who makes his living as an accomplished director, “It didn’t make sense.”
Sure enough, there were police at the front door, and more, outside. They set before Soref a thick stack of papers encasing more than 70 charges against him, and, with little explanation, arrested the director and producer in front of his wife, mother-in-law, and the five-year-old daughter Lili.
He was instructed to leave behind his watch, his wallet, and his phone, and was able to gather, during the ride in the back of the police car, that an associate, Michelle Seward (now Michelle LeClair), illegally obtained funds that were used to finance the science fiction Saturn Award nominee Not Forgotten, a film Soref wrote and directed himself.
Soref learned that his associate had prior knowledge of the charges and turned herself in, negotiating release on her own recognizance. Soref himself “never talked to one investor about one dime.” Because of this, his own release seemed like a no-brainer. Instead, he was hit with a $2.7 million bail.
“Well, that’s the $2.7 million dollar question.”
In D.C., this procedure has kept the jail at only 45% capacity, a statistic which stands to lessen what can become a substantial taxpayer burden. For an inmate in a Philadelphia jail, costs can run as much as $120 a day.
Soref noted that Nikolas Cruz, who faces 17 counts of first-degree murder for the Parkland school shooting in Florida this year, was given a $3 million dollar bail.
Soref suspects the prosecution of discriminating on the basis of national origin, since he was deemed a flight risk on the basis of his dual citizenship: the U.S. and Israel. Even when Soref offered to surrender his passport, the prosecution was unmoved, and he spent 140 days in jail, allowing his career, relationships, and reputation to suffer.
It seems blatant that pre-trial incarceration contradicts the premise of “innocent until proven guilty,” and cities and states across the U.S. have been taking action. Maryland, California, and New York are just a few that have introduced policies that reduce—or, in some cases—abolish the use of money bail. In Maryland, the language introduced in 2017 reads that judges “… may not impose a financial condition, in form or amount, that he/she knows or has reason to believe the defendant is financially incapable of meeting.” New Jersey’s pretrial detention policies have relegated the implementation of bail to a last resort.
Some places are ahead of the game when it comes to bail reform—the District of Columbia eliminated money bail back in 1992 and replaced that effective ransom with a risk assessment. This risk assessment determines the appropriate action based on an individual’s criminal history, ties to the community, and potential threat to themselves and others. The accused is then either released on their own recognizance, granted a conditional release (such as electronic device monitoring), or remanded to jail, in the event that they pose a danger to themselves or others.
For the nonviolent crimes of which Soref was eventually exonerated, an appropriate risk assessment likely would have resulted in his release. Active within the community, Soref served as a political leader in Israel and was cited for excellence in the military. He’s lived in the United States for the last forty years, served two terms as the Director of the Board of the Greater Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, made significant donations to charitable organizations, received recognition for all of his short and feature films, and remains an active promoter of social causes and human rights campaigns.
His newly-founded Rebel with a Cause Institute, “dedicated to guiding aspiring talent to create movies, TV and other content fostering principled ideals” seems to embody a commitment to a socially-reformed future.
Instead of taking these things into account, the judge upheld the staggering $2.7 million dollar bail. And Soref acknowledges that this is not uncommon. He’s right that judges only get a few minutes to assess a defendant’s case, and they’re likely to err on the side of caution. After all, they certainly don’t want to be responsible for releasing a dangerous defendant.
However, D.C.’s Pretrial Services Agency has found that that’s unlikely to be the case. After the extensive risk assessment interview, almost 90% of defendants are eligible for release, either on their own recognizance or with some degree of supervision. That means it’s possible that only 10% of those withheld on bail in other states, unable to go to work and separated from their home and family, actually pose a flight risk or a danger to society.
These kinds of statistics reveal that cash bail does more harm than good. Low-risk defendants with some jail time under their belts have been found more likely to commit crimes upon their release, and Soref saw this firsthand. In the five months he was imprisoned, of the thousand or more people he encountered, he was “the only person who was in jail… for the first time.”
The rate of recidivism is one reason Soref considers the term “correctional facility” insulting. When families can’t afford bail, they often are left with few options. They might wait in jail and miss work opportunities, losing money and face, similarly to Soref. They might end up indebted to a bail bond company. Or they might plead guilty, leaving innocent people with lifelong criminal records—and residual court fees.
Ioan Gruffudd, currently starring in Harrow, “got to know [Dror] as a sort of father” in their school days, and he remembers the toll that Soref’s incarceration took on the entire family.
“His wife knocked on the door one morning and burst into tears, and explained what happened,” Gruffudd recalls. He describes a certain despair accompanying the excitement in the visiting area, “full of families and children, dressed in their Sunday best.” Meanwhile, the inmates appeared emotionally and physically deteriorated.
Gruffudd voices what many of us expect from our justice system, “I thought that everyone there—who was accused of something—had a fair trial… I didn’t realize there was all this deal-making going on.”
Soref was briefly released after another judge saw fit to reduce his bail—and Gruffudd and other supporters were able to contribute to Soref’s release. Over a year after his original arrest, his case began its preliminary hearing.
“Every day, the judge would say, ‘I hope tomorrow we’re going to hear something bad about you,’” Soref recalls.
Soref remembers the judge explaining the purpose of the hearing—to determine whether there was probable cause that a crime was committed, and the defendant might be guilty of the crime—and then recites verbatim the judge’s words, “It is an extremely low standard. However, it is a standard.”
The judge determined the prosecution failed to meet that standard. More than a year and two months after his arrest, Soref was fully exonerated. He remains a passionate advocate for social reform, and aims to create a documentary piece drawing on his experience, with Gruffudd in the director’s seat. You can find more about Soref’s case and his work at Sorefsocialreform.org.
Soref’s experience highlights the injustice present in our justice system. An enormous bail kept an innocent man separated from his career, wife, and his five-year-old daughter for five months. It’s made even more poignant by the success of risk assessments in other localities, illustrating how such a pre-trial punishment might have been easily avoided. Soref reminds us, “Efficiency and justice have nothing to do with each other.”
Dror’s activity with non-profit organizations includes the Aleph Institute (a Jewish-based association providing crucial assistance to families whose loved ones are in prison or serve in the US Armed Forces), Equal Justice Under the Law (dedicated to ending inequality in the justice system), The Midnight Mission (A non-denominational mission in the heart of Los Angeles’ skid row dedicated to feeding the homeless and restoring people to sobriety), and the Greater Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (where he served as a Director of the Institute’s Board, promoting job opportunities and internships for Los Angeles youth.)
Most recently Soref founded RCI (Rebel with a Cause Institute) dedicated to guiding aspiring talent to create movies, TV and other content fostering principled ideals.
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