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STATE SEIZES ESCROW OFFICES; FIRMS ACCUSED OF MISUSING FUNDS.

Byline: Steve Carney Staff Writer

State investigators raided escrow offices in Van Nuys, Westlake Village, Sun Valley, Palmdale and elsewhere Friday, accusing the businesses of taking clients' escrow money to pay their own bills, including payrolls.

The case could involve hundreds of customers who deposited money with the suspected companies during property transactions, said state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

The agents estimate the shortfall at $1.8 million, but Quackenbush said no customers will lose money because of the activities of Universal Title Co., which is headquartered in Big Bear but has branches in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere.

``Universal's illegal manipulation of the hard-earned money that people have saved to purchase a home is deplorable,'' Quackenbush said.

Marvin Tachner, the Encino-based attorney for Universal, said the company has done no wrong and predicted that the matter would be quickly ``straightened out.''

``I'm surprised at some of the assertions,'' he said. ``The Department of Insurance should probably be a little more careful. Tooting their own horn is one thing, but to suggest criminal acts is another thing.''

The investigators said Universal officials were dipping into the escrow accounts of clients and using the money to pay the company's own bills, including payroll and office supplies. The money is supposed to lie idle while the real estate transactions are processed.

``That is clearly illegal. They have no right to do that,'' Quackenbush said.

He said the company handled clients' escrow funds like a pyramid scheme, paying past customers' escrows with funds from new customers.

Investigators also seized the three offices of a subsidiary, Sacramento Title Co., and placed examiners in the offices of an affiliated company, Pacific Coast Title of Marin. The three companies had a combined revenue of $18 million last year.

Quackenbush said current Universal customers may face delays while his department sorts out the transactions. Quackenbush promised that the customers will not lose money, however, as any shortfalls in their escrow accounts will be made up by the insurance carriers underwriting Universal.

Anyone still in the middle of an escrow transaction with either Universal or Sacramento Title companies is asked to call those offices Monday and speak to Department of Insurance officials who will be there.

The department also urged customers with information or questions to call its consumer hotline, (213) 897-8921 in the Los Angeles area, or (800) 927-HELP elsewhere.

The department will present its case for seizure to a court in Big Bear next week, Quackenbush said.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 5, 2000
Words:412
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