MINEOLA, N.Y. — An attorney who claimed his own experience as an adopted child motivated him to help people seeking to start families is suspected of running a Ponzi-like scheme that ripped off couples from New York to Texas, promising children that didn't exist.
Kevin Cohen, 41, pleaded not guilty Friday to grand larceny and other charges after one Long Island couple told prosecutors they paid him $60,000 in fees for a promised baby that he never delivered. Since then, 15 other couples from New York, Georgia, Ohio and Texas have contacted a prosecutor in New York's Nassau County, telling similar stories.
Cohen's attorney, Matin Emouna, said the disputes are civil matters and not something requiring criminal prosecution. Cohen, of Roslyn, once ran an adoption agency called the Adoption Annex and has had many satisfied clients, he said.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has likened the case to a Ponzi scheme because Cohen partially refunded some disappointed couples with proceeds he had collected from other people to whom he promised babies. In a traditional Ponzi scheme, early investors are paid "proceeds" from a scam investment with money raked in from later investors.
"This was so much more than just a fraud scheme," Rice said. "The emotional turmoil he put these couples through is unimaginable. You have couple after couple who just want to provide a nice loving home for a baby."
Cohen's arrest stems from his dealings with Deborah and Milton Josephs, a middle-class couple from Port Washington on Long Island.
Deborah Josephs, a 44-year-old former human resources executive who now works as a consultant, and her 41-year-old husband, Milton, an elementary school special education teacher, already have one 6-year-old daughter and had prepared their home for a new child who never arrived as promised in August.
Deborah Josephs said they paid Cohen $35,000 in legal fees and expenses for the birth mother in March. They said he contacted them shortly after that payment, saying he had another potential mother, but needed an additional $25,000 to secure that adoption.
"At the end of the day, things kept dragging on and on, excuse after excuse, and we got suspicious," she said.
Cohen is being held on $500,000 bail. A grand jury is considering additional charges, although an indictment is not expected until after prosecutors can pin down how many couples may have been victimized. Aside from families in New York and Texas, couples have come forward in Eatonton, Ga., and Cleveland.
"Who knows what the end of the road is going to be?" Rice said. "We believe this is going to be even more expansive."
Cohen was also arrested in December after prosecutors said he tried to claim ownership of a home being held in trust for him. That case is pending.
Cohen had advertised himself as an adoption expert and boasted of his childhood with adoptive parents as his reason for entering the field, but Rice said investigators are trying to determine whether that claim was true.
Cohen may have arranged legitimate adoptions at one time, Rice said, but her investigation has uncovered only disappointed couples who say they were victimized.
"He was spending all the money on his own personal lifestyle, improvements to his home," Rice said. "He was living very high on this money with no other motive than pure, unadulterated greed."
Gloria Houchman, a spokeswoman for the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia, said that although instances of attorneys scamming potential adoptive parents are rare, any prospective parent should be "very wary about any monetary arrangements."
Adoption agents and attorneys are paid for their services. The average cost is about $30,000, which usually goes for fees, court filings and sometimes to pay the medical expenses of the birth mother, Houchman said. Adoptive parents can get an $11,000 tax credit, which helps defray some expenses.
"When you are very desperate, people might think nothing of handing over $65,000," she said. "They don't realize this is above and beyond what an attorney should be asking."
Cohen provided a variety of excuses for why no baby ever showed up, Deborah Josephs said.
"Supposedly the babies were born, but the birth mothers hadn't made up their minds," she said. Another time they were told that a cesarean section prevented an adoption – although it wasn't clear why.
They had even bought their excited 6-year-old a "Big Sisters Rock" T-shirt, which she hasn't gotten to wear.
Brigid and Ben Vogt of Seaford, also on Long Island, met Cohen about three years ago. The first adoption attempt he handled for them fell through because of what she called "complications."
Cohen again contacted them on Sept. 21, saying that he had a prospective mother willing to give up a child and that he needed $20,000 from the couple immediately, she said. The Vogts scrambled for a loan and even added $2,500 when Cohen said he needed more money the following day.
"He was so aggressive," Brigid Vogt said. "He called us constantly, saying if we want a baby he needed the money right away. Looking back, there were a lot of red flags."
Vogt, who said she was recently laid off from a job in a doctor's office, realized when she learned of Cohen's arrest on Friday night that the money was likely gone forever.
"I feel very foolish," she said. "I feel like I was punched in the stomach."