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Agent admits premium thefts

Insurance agent Edward B. Kodish, who once earned more than $200,000 in commissions, pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing from elderly clients and vowed to tell the world about the seamy underside of high-pressure sales. Kodish, 43, will be sentenced in April on 21 counts of grand theft and exploitation of the elderly. According to sentencing guidelines, he faces 17 to 22 years in prison.

Nodding his head as prosecutors ticked off charges, Kodish admitted that he pocketed thousands of dollars in premiums from four Pinellas County residents who never received their policies.

Sentencing was delayed, ostensibly to give Kodish time to repay the money he stole. But in a telephone interview from jail, Kodish said he also expects to win points with the court by revealing what he knows about other insurance agents who prey on the elderly.

Already, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging has invited him to testify in Washington on sales abuses. The committee is examining Medicare supplement insurance, one of Kodish's specialities and a product that traditionally attracts unscrupulous agents. Committee aide Holly Bode confirmed that Kodish is a potential witness.

"The lure of big money was great, and I gave into it," Kodish said. "I hope my actions in the next couple of months show I'm on the right road now."

It's not the first time Kodish has promised to go straight. When he moved to Florida from Illinois in 1987, he had just been convicted of passing bad checks and fraudulently collecting unemployment benefits. An Illinois judge gave him probation when he promised to make restitution.

By using a phony Social Security number, he hid his felonious past and took out a Florida insurance agent's license. He then went to work for Diversified Health Services, a huge St. Petersburg agency that caters to the over-65 market. Within a year, Kodish was a top Diversified salesman.

Before long, consumer complaints against Kodish streamed into the Florida Department of Insurance, which revoked his license last summer and charged him with grand theft. In one case, he conned three checks from an 89-year-old woman and cashed them by fabricating applications for a fictitious client.

After posting bail on that charge, he said he was abandoning insurance sales. He even said he would atone by delivering Meals on Wheels.

Instead, he continued to sell insurance without a license, rolling up more complaints and more grand theft charges. The daughter of one 86-year-old woman accused Kodish of altering her mother's $402 premium check to make it read $5,402.

Kodish denied changing that check

but pleaded guilty to taking the woman's money without giving her a policy.

As he has in the past, Kodish said he learned his tricks while working for Diversified, which he left shortly before his legal troubles began.

"I fell in with a bad group of people," Kodish said. "I should have stopped doing business like that, but it was an old habit to break."

An Insurance Department investigation last year led to administrative charges against 20 current or former Diversified agents. Kodish is the only one convicted of a crime; hearings against most of the others are pending.

Diversified owner Mel Gross, who blames Kodish's cheating for the regulatory scrutiny of Diversified, scoffed at his former agent's comments. "Did he fall in with bad people when became a convicted felon in Illinois?" Gross said. "I think we fell in with a bad person."

Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher lauded the guilty pleas Tuesday as "justice for Kodish's victims."

"Unfortunately, while most agents are honest, Florida is plagued with a handful of unscrupulous bad guys," Gallagher said. "When someone with a pattern of dishonesty like Kodish preys on citizens who are vulnerable because of worries about their health and security, the results can be tragic."