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Feds bust a top Fiat Chrysler car seller in alleged wire fraud scam

Robert Snell Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal prosecutors Friday charged one of the nation's top Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV salespeople with helping orchestrate a wire fraud conspiracy that cost the automaker $8.7 million.

Parkway Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram salesman Apollon "Apollo" Nimo, 34, of Macomb Township was charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for allegedly orchestrating a scam that involved illegally selling employee discounts to non-qualified buyers. He was arrested Friday and made an initial appearance in federal court later in the afternoon to face charges that could send him to prison for up to 20 years.

New Stellantis signage was installed January 19, 2021 at the former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

An unsealed criminal complaint obtained by The Detroit News describes a vast black market involving brokers who peddled employee discount numbers to salespeople who connected with buyers in private Facebook groups.

"FCA representatives have informed me that they continue to receive information indicating that Nimo's fraudulent (use) of (employee numbers) continues to the present day," Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Joseph Kunnummyalil wrote in an affidavit filed in federal court.

The criminal scheme described by the government involved a birthright perk in a company town where union workers and salaried employees of Detroit’s three automakers and eligible relatives are accustomed to using discounts to buy or lease new vehicles.

Automakers routinely conduct audits to eliminate fraud involving discount programs. During the Great Recession, as General Motors Corp. teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, the automaker sued buyers for unauthorized use of worker discounts. At the time, one retired autoworker in Buffalo, N.Y., was sued for $45,501 and accused of giving discounts to 13 people from 2004 until April 2007.

The program offers FCA employees and relatives a 5% discount on vehicles, and prosecutors say most of Nimo’s sales were under the Employee Purchase Control Number program. He was the program’s top salesman nationwide during sales periods in 2018 and 2019, according to the complaint.

“FCA US is committed to preserving the integrity of our employee purchase programs and is cooperating with the U.S Attorney’s Office,” spokeswoman Shawn Morgan said in a statement. “We note that dealers are independent businesses and are solely responsible for their conduct and operations. As the matter is ongoing, we cannot discuss it further at this time.”

The complaint describes a lucrative conspiracy that started in 2014 and netted Nimo $700,000 in payments from Fiat Chrysler, which compounded the automaker’s loss of revenue. The alleged conspiracy was discovered by Fiat Chrysler investigators who learned that employee numbers were being bought and sold in private Facebook groups that served as an online black market.

Apollon "Apollo" Nimo

There was no immediate comment from a Parkway manager on Friday.

A shackled, unshaven and disheveled Nimo, dressed in a black short-sleeve T-shirt, made a brief appearance in federal court in Detroit and was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond. He listened with a mask dangling off his left ear and told U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Patti he planned on hiring a lawyer.

Nimo, who was born in Greece, was represented by court-appointed lawyer Fabian Renteria during the hearing Friday. “We discussed retaining counsel,” Renteria said, “and that will, a little bit, depend on if he is employed after today.”

By Friday afternoon, Nimo's photo and contact information had been removed from the dealership's website. While free on bond, Nimo is barred from using employee discounts to sell or lease vehicles and prohibited from leaving the state or country.

The alleged scheme was uncovered after employees filed complaints with Fiat Chrysler — now part of Stellantis NV — saying their employee numbers were being used without their consent. Clinton Township Police and Kunnummyalil interviewed the employees and discovered many of the employee numbers were used in vehicle sales and leases at the Parkway dealership.

Investigators analyzed 268 employee numbers that were illegally used and found every instance was traced to Nimo from 2016-18, according to the agent.

The automaker reimburses its dealers for the 5% discounts after the sale happens, said Jim Schebil, owner and president of Fox Hills Chrysler Jeep in Plymouth, which is not mentioned in the complaint. Stellantis employees receive a certain number of discounts each year, and they list eligible relatives with the company. The company gives the employee a number, which they can then provide to a qualifying relative to receive the discount at a dealership.

A dealership then verifies the information through a configurator in the automaker’s system, Schebil said, inputting the employee’s name, relative’s name and the identification number provided by the company.

The Plymouth dealership doesn’t see too many employee discounts, but “the numbers speak for themselves” with respect to the large number of sales from Nimo reported in the complaint, Schebil said.

Ninety percent of sales at Village Ford in Dearborn are under some type of benefits plan, said Jim Seavitt, the dealership’s owner.

“You’re the gatekeeper of that,” he said of sales under the programs for employees, retirees, suppliers and dealers. “If they come in and audit you, you have to prove all of these people were qualified.”

Proof may be a copy of a driver's or marriage license, Seavitt said. Ford Motor Co. may conduct such self-audits every couple of years without warning. If a dealer doesn’t have proof, they could face chargebacks or penalties.

“It’s a real disadvantage to other dealers in town when that sort of stuff is happening,” Seavitt said. “When you have a customer coming in the door, and they’re not one of the approved employees or approved family members, and they get the factory discount, they get a lot of business they shouldn’t have.”

During the investigation, agents learned Nimo’s father leased at least three cars from his son at Parkway in 2014, according to the complaint.

“For all three transactions for his father, Nimo stated that his father is the brother/sister-in-law of three separate FCA employees,” the agent wrote.

The FCA employees, however, were not related to Nimo’s father, according to the government: “Apollon Nimo is aware of his relatives and his father’s relatives, yet, he applied the FCA employees’ (numbers) to his father’s leases,” the agent wrote.

At some point, FCA investigators discovered employee numbers were being bought and sold through private Facebook groups, including “Chaldean Mens Only (The Official Page of Chaldean Men Worldwide)” and “Chaldean Men of Detroit (And Worldwide).” Most of the group members lived in Michigan, investigators said.

Several Facebook group chats mentioned Nimo, the agent wrote. In a July 2018 chat, one member wrote: “Looking for recommendations on car leases, can be any type of car as well. Thank you guys.”

Another member posted in response: “Come on Peter I’ve told you about Apollo 1000 times plus everyone else in here uses him.”

Investigators questioned a manager at Sterling Heights Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram in June who said Nimo sold about 250 vehicles in January 2020, an extremely high and unusual number, according to the court filing.

“He further stated that Nimo personally sells more vehicles than entire sales departments at most FCA dealerships,” the agent wrote.

The manager recalled his sales associate being approached by an employee number “broker” in 2019. The broker “stated that he sells to Nimo and other top selling salespeople at FCA dealerships,” the agent wrote.

The manager’s attorney gave investigators a phone number for one “broker.” Investigators obtained a search warrant and discovered that the number was linked to the “Chaldean Men of Detroit (and Worldwide) group on Facebook, according to the complaint.

Investigators said the phone number was in repeated contact with Nimo from 2019-20.

One customer told investigators Nimo was selling black-market employee numbers for $600, according to the complaint. The customer bought three vehicles from Nimo in December 2018, and that during the sales negotiations, Nimo offered to sell him the discount, the agent wrote.

Investigators traced one employee number used to obtain a $2,597 discount on a 2020 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck. The number belonged to a retired Fiat Chrysler worker who told investigators he was unwittingly lured into the alleged scheme.

The retiree said he received a call from an unknown dealership employee in 2018. The dealership employee said one of the retiree’s relatives was at the dealership and wanted to use his employee discount. The retiree said he gave the number.