John Pelinski

John Pelinski is a veteran who was convinced to sign over his disability payments by several unscrupulous companies. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A small South Carolina law firm is being forced to end a nationwide scheme that preyed on desperate military veterans and misled unwitting investors for roughly seven years.  

The Upstate Law Group, with its office in Easley, was at the center of the financial operation that convinced veterans to sell their pensions or disability payments and persuaded retirees to invest in those monthly benefits. 

State and federal officials over several years alleged the contracts being peddled were illegal. They pointed out that federal law prohibits military benefits from being assigned to another person. They moved to shut down the various businesses at times. 

That didn't deter Candy Kern-Fuller, owner of the Upstate Law Group.

The Post and Courier published an investigation on Kern-Fuller in September. It detailed her extended involvement, and it highlighted how she effectively operated as the banker, legal counsel and debt collector for the entire operation. 

The practice netted millions of dollars in allegedly illegal profits, which Kern-Fuller and the other middlemen siphoned off the top of each deal. 

Kern-Fuller and her attorney did not respond to emails or phone calls for this story. 

The only reason Kern-Fuller is prepared to cease operations now is because of federal lawsuits pushed by several veterans. That litigation, which was initially filed in 2017, accused Kern-Fuller and her associates of civil fraud and racketeering. 

The lawyers for those veterans filed a proposed settlement in the cases late last week. The deal asks a judge to ban Kern-Fuller and the other people involved in the scheme from orchestrating a similar business ever again. 

The settlement is also expected to end Kern Fuller's efforts to sue veterans who stopped forwarding their benefit payments to the Upstate Law Group. 

The Post and Courier's investigation showed Kern-Fuller filed more than 60 lawsuits against veterans in Greenville County since 2013, seeking damages over the contracts they signed.

As of this month, 16 of those cases were still pending in South Carolina courts.

John Pelinski, one of the veterans who was sued by the Upstate Law Group in 2015, said he was glad the financial scheme was coming to an end. But he wants to see more done, such as Kern-Fuller losing her law license. 

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"I'm happy the nightmare is over," said Pelinski, who was forced into bankruptcy because of the contract he signed. "That's great great news. I'm thrilled." 

The settlement isn't likely to resolve everything, however. Kern-Fuller and her associates are also being pursued by investors who purchased the allegedly secure investments in the pensions and disability payments. 

Two of those investors have filed federal lawsuits in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

It's not clear how many veterans were lured into the scheme in the past seven years or how many investors are still waiting to get their money back.

As part of the settlement, the Upstate Law Group and its business partners will have 90 days to report how many benefit contracts they orchestrated. 

Several people involved in a nearly identical scheme were charged with fraud by the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina earlier this year. 

But to this point, Kern-Fuller and her associates have escaped any type of criminal prosecution. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.