SALT LAKE CITY – Federal prosecutors filed an antitrust case Wednesday against a Salt Lake City-based company that's part of a little-known industry specializing in tracking down heirs to unclaimed inheritances.
Kemp & Associates Inc. and executive Daniel Mannix are accused in an indictment of conspiring with other companies for more than 14 years so they wouldn't have to compete with each other. Prosecutors contend that strategy unfairly drove up prices for the heirs.
Defense attorneys said Mannix didn't do anything wrong and is looking forward to his day in court.
"Kemp and Associates firmly believes that it has done nothing wrong and the company will continue to provide the important services to heirs that it has for over 50 years," said James Mitchell, a lawyer for the company.
Mannix and the company are each facing one antitrust count.
The allegations stem from a Justice Department investigation into anti-competitive practices in the industry in which companies track down distant relations when someone dies without a will or close family.
Workers sift through probate filings in search of recently deceased people who may have missing or unknown heirs.
For competitive reasons, details of the estate are typically withheld until the heir signs a contract with the company.
The firms then use court records, genealogical documents and other public data to help them secure the inheritance in exchange for part of the assets.
The industry defends its practices, saying it has helped heirs secure millions of dollars in inheritances they otherwise would never have known about.
The probe led by Chicago prosecutors resulted in plea deals with a California company and two executives. Prosecutors say the Utah company and its executive colluded with one those executives.
If two firms were trying to sign the same long-lost heir, one company might agree to back off in exchange for part of the fees, court documents allege. If there were multiple heirs to a single unclaimed estate, the firms would split up the relatives so everyone got part of the revenue, according to prosecutors.
"For over a decade, the defendants schemed to line their pockets at the expense of beneficiaries," Renata Hesse, current head of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, said in a statement.