Polka Ponzi Scheme: The Jan Lewan Story (From The Vault Episode 2)
Polish native Jan Lewan shot to regional fame in my native Pennsylvania as “The Polka King,” often appearing on television with his flamboyant costumes and outlandish personality. He’s been called the Liberace of Polka.
Soon, Lewan developed a strong and devout national following because of his talents and gregarious nature.
Lewan owned and operated a gift store in Hazleton, Pennsylvania in order to market directly to his fans. As part of his enterprise, Lewan would organize group trips to Poland. While there, he would bring back jewelry and other goods to sell in the store. To support the store, he also sold shares in his entertainment business. In doing so, he promised returns ranging from 12 to 20 percent to investors, many of whom were retirees who had traveled with him.
The state of Pennsylvania warned him to stop selling securities, but he continued. In 2004 Lewan was arrested for defrauding approximately 400 people in 22 states of millions of dollars. Lewan was sentenced to five years and 11 months imprisonment by a federal court judge as well as a seven-year sentence in New Jersey, which were served concurrently.
Lewan was released from prison in 2009. But for his many victims, they still feel the financial devastation his Ponzi scheme caused.
Lewan’s story became infamous with both the documentary Mystery of the Polka King and the Jack Black film The Polka King–both still available on Netflix. An abridged version of his story is also featured on the CNBC show American Greed.
The central question in both the documentary and fictionalized retelling: What was Jan Lewan’s intent? Did he start out meaning to do right by his investors, and his business plan devolved into a fraud because he couldn’t keep up financially? Or was his plan to defraud his following all along?
So I thought I’d ask him.
And here’s where we get to why I have not aired this episode in the nearly 3 years since recording it. I was always concerned that perhaps I was a little too soft on Lewan.
I’m a big believer in swift and fierce justice. But I also believe that if you’ve done the crime and the time, you have paid your debt to society and should be forgiven. Perhaps that comes through a little too much in this interview. Because in this case, Lewan may have paid his debts to society. But his victims are still reeling. Some families were so devoted to Lewan, they gave him everything and lost it all.
So I will let you, listener, decide what you think of Jan Lewan’s motives.