ADA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The founder of a West Michigan financial services firm is facing charges he embezzled client funds and used the cash to gamble in three states, among other spending.
Michigan’s attorney general has filed seven criminal counts against Jaime Westenbarger, 45, for allegedly stealing $260,000 from clients of the firm he established, Ada-based Forest Hills Financial, Inc.
According to an affidavit of probable cause filed in Kent County’s 63rd District Court, Westenbarger used the money to “pay off credit cards, gamble at various casinos in Michigan, Las Vegas and New Orleans, as well as buy items for himself and his girlfriend.”
The court record also alleges Westenbarger gave his then-girlfriend some of the money through the payment app Venmo.
Westenbarger is charged with embezzlement, using a computer to commit a crime and conducting a criminal enterprise.
The criminal enterprise charge requires a “pattern of racketeering activity,” according to the felony complaint filed against Westenbarger.
“This investigation revealed that the defendant, Jaime Westenbarger, utilized his business entity, Forest Hills Financial Inc, … (in) Grand Rapids, Kent Co. MI, to assist in committing the acts listed and utilized the business to defraud his clients by embezzling their money which was supposed to go towards investments,” read the probable cause affidavit.
The alleged crimes occurred in the spring of 2018 and involved two separate clients.
In May of that year, the attorney general said a husband and wife gave Westenbarger two checks to invest, each for $100,000.
ONE ALLEGED VICTIM HAD DEMENTIA
In April 2018, Westenbarger allegedly obtained an investment check for $60,000 from a client who had dementia.
In both cases, according to court documents, Westenbarger later “admitted to the victim(s) that he converted the money and attempted to persuade them to sign a document stating the money was a loan.”
That was Westenbarger’s story when Target 8 tracked him down in 2019 as he peddled his retirement planning skills to an invite-only gathering at a Kent County country club.
He was pitching retirement plans because he could no longer sell securities.
The brokerage firm through which Westenbarger had been registered, Secure America, fired him amid allegations of misappropriation of funds.
Westenbarger ultimately agreed to give up his broker’s license permanently in a settlement agreement with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
A tipster, concerned Westenbarger had begun targeting retirees, contacted Target 8, and we confronted the former broker at his country club retirement seminar.
Westenbarger told Target 8 he planned to inform prospective clients he’d lost his broker’s license but only if they scheduled personal consultations following the seminar.
Later, in an interview at WOOD TV8 studios, Westenbarger said he’d taken loans from clients but never stole from them.
“It’s not some massive coverup,” he told Target 8 at the time. “Nothing major. There’s not millions of dollars missing, or anything like that. It doesn’t involve any misappropriations.”
Westenbarger said he’d intended to use the client loans to invest in real estate, but his wife died by suicide a month later, and he ended up using the funds to cover expenses.
A MOVE TO TENNESSEE, A BANKRUPTCY FILING
“Last year was a bad year,” said Westenbarger of 2018, acknowledging he had no documentation showing clients had loaned him the money.
In 2020, Westenbarger and his then-girlfriend moved to Tennessee and he took a job as a sales director at a roofing company.
“Jaime Westenbarger is the TN Roofing Pro,” read his bio on the business’s website. “He brings a unique skill set and background to any project he undertakes. As a licensed insurance agent for over 20 years, he understands the way insurance companies work and how best to get his customers’ claims paid.”
In June 2021, Westenbarger filed for bankruptcy protection in Tennessee, reporting debts totaling $1.86 million.
In January 2022, the U.S. bankruptcy trustee filed a document contesting the discharge of Westenbarger’s debts.
According to the U.S. Trustee’s Complaint to Deny Discharge, Westenbarger claimed under oath he had not given any gifts worth more than $600 within two years of filing bankruptcy.
VACATIONS, DIAMOND RING, LUXURY HOUSING, GAMBLING
The complaint went on to list Westenbarger’s financial activities leading up to his filing, reporting he:
“Transferred an average of approximately $6,700 a month into his wife’s bank account”
“Transferred his Coinbase electronic currency in the year before bankruptcy”
“Flew to Hawaii with his then-fiancé and gave her a 3-carat diamond ring” (allegedly appraised for $22,000)
“Got married at a luxury hotel in Las Vegas”
The complaint described Westenbarger as an “active gambler, who “holds a Platinum rewards status as a gambler at MGM Casino,” and “spent excessive amounts of money on luxury goods and experiences.”
According to the trustee’s complaint, after Westenbarger filed for bankruptcy, he and his wife vacationed in Las Vegas again and rented a luxury apartment in downtown Nashville for $3,450 a month.
According to federal court records, the trustee ultimately dismissed the complaint after Westenbarger amended his filing.
Even so, Keller & Almassian, a Grand Rapids law firm with extensive experience in bankruptcy proceedings, told Target 8 it’s exceptionally rare for a bankruptcy trustee to file a Complaint to Deny Discharge in the first place.
Attorneys Todd Almassian and Greg Ekdahl estimate they’ve handled thousands of bankruptcy proceedings between them.
Almassian said he’s seen the government file such complaints only a handful of times in his 25 years.
Almassian and Ekdahl reviewed Westenbarger’s bankruptcy filing and noted only one creditor, one of the alleged victims in the criminal case, had challenged the discharge of debts.
Alamassian explained the bankruptcy code gives creditors approximately three months to file an objection.
ATTORNEY TO CREDITORS: SEEK GUIDANCE EARLY
“Most people, unless you have a bankruptcy lawyer, it’s really confusing and fast-moving,” said Almassian. “The public policy behind that is to give people a fresh start in life. So, if you want to object, you’d better object fast … and many people probably would have claims that, if pursued, could also be non-dischargeable.”
Almassian urged creditors to seek guidance early.
“If you’re a creditor, and you get notice that someone has filed a bankruptcy proceeding, then look at those papers, you have sixty days to object, and it might be in your best interest to talk to a bankruptcy lawyer,” said Almassian.
In the end, the alleged victim won that battle, and the bankruptcy judge refused to discharge $277,829, as well as $117,000 in tax debt.
Westenbarger remains in Tennessee for now, and there’s no word yet on whether he’ll fight extradition back to Michigan. Target 8 left messages for Westenbarger and two of his attorneys seeking comment but did not hear back.
If convicted, he could face up to twenty years in prison.