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Relatives fear hefty investments lost in failed school

| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

Investors who gave money to two Latrobe men to start foreign medical schools may have lost investments placed with Health Education Associates Unlimited Inc.

The educational investment firm promoted by Thomas M. Uhrin and Jeffrey T. Irwin is "folding up because of a lack of fiscal support," according to Uhrin, who said they do not have money to open planned schools in Italy and Sri Lanka.

Now, Irwin's siblings say that their elderly parents, who are in ill health and reside in New York, are unable to pay bills because they gave Uhrin and Irwin $86,000 in start-up cash for the schools. They are concerned their parents will never regain their initial investments, let alone profit from any promised interest.

"The first I heard of this, I didn't like the way it sounded, and when I saw the contract, it confirmed even more that there were way too many questions, and it sounded too good to be true," said Tim Irwin, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is Jeffrey Irwin's older brother.

"I'm no financial expert, but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Family members said Irwin's parents and several other relatives invested sums that totaled more than $260,000 with Uhrin and Jeffrey Irwin in recent months. Additional investors could not be reached for comment.

Uhrin, in mid-December, offered no explanation as to where the investors' money went. He denied allegations that the high rate of promised returns amounted to nothing more than a plan to defraud investors.

"No, it's nothing like that. If I could find a way to make good on it, I would," Uhrin said. "I just wish everybody understood."

Jeffrey Irwin declined to comment, telling a reporter, "I have nothing to say, especially to you."

Documents show that Uhrin and Irwin, as directors of Health Education Associates Unlimited Inc., offered to pay Irwin's parents 8 percent monthly interest, beginning in September, on the initial deposit of $86,000. The agreement guaranteed annual payments of $82,560 for five years.

"That's nearly a 100 percent return on their money," said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stallings, who returned to private practice in Pittsburgh in 2008.

Stallings said the unusually high rate of return offered in the agreements fits the description of a Ponzi scheme -- a plan that pays early investors with money from later investors.

Stallings said such financial plans "are doomed to fail; it's just a question of when."

Documents show that Uhrin and Jeffrey Irwin, who have not been charged with any crimes, quickly fell behind on promised payments.

Bank records show that the couple received full payments for September and October, but then got payments of just $500 each on Dec. 3 and Dec. 4. A week before Christmas, they received another partial payment of $5,000, records show.

Sharon Heinlein of Arcadia, Fla., the Irwins' older sister, said her parents are struggling to pay bills.

"I'm not after anybody," Heinlein said. "I would just like my family to be made whole."

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