Man Made $500 Million Disappear...
An incredibly strange and complex tale involving Scientology, EarthLink, Hollywood and this man, Reed Slatkin.
John Poitras was not looking to get rich when he handed $15 million to his friend Reed Slatkin to invest for him last year. Poitras was already rich - but perhaps he wouldn't have minded getting just a bit richer. A brash fifty-seven-year-old retired venture capitalist who limps because of a bad back, Poitras lived in Silicon Valley but often visited Santa Barbara because his girlfriend, a professional pilot, lived there. And for some time, Poitras had been working his way into local society. He bought property. He joined the yacht club. And he became interested in an elite if irreverent arts group called Sings Like Hell, which brought singers and songwriters such as Tracy Chapman, Randy Newman, and Tom Rush perform for music lovers at Santa Barbara's six-hundred-seat Lobero Theatre. Poitras puts up $5000 to become a Sings like Hell Patron.
The Sings Like Hell
klatch included some prominent and very rich few friends. Reed Slatkin
and his wife, Mary Jo, appeared to be particularly fine people to meet.
A founder of EarthLink, Slatkin was a member of the new-establishment
aristocracy who lived with his wife and two sons in a richly landscaped,
hacienda-style home in the exclusive Hope Ranch area of Santa Barbara.
With a fortune of more than $100 million, Slatkin had a
Soon after becoming a Sings Like Hell patron, Poitras hosted a festive dinner at the Wine Cask with the Slatkin and another music-loving couple, Hale and Anne Milgrim. The bearded Hale was the former head of Capitol Records and renowned Deadhead. That night, he bought expensive wine for the table. "Sings Like Hell is going to be a big money hole," Poitras told Slatkin jovially. "I think of this as venture capital for the soul."
Poitras knew that Slatkin invested money for many of his friends. And while Slatkin didn't solicit anything from Poitras, he wasn't modest about his skills. Last year, as tech stocks were flaming out, the two met at a benefit for the Santa Barbara Bowl. "Centimillionaires are going to be wiped out, but I made 14 per-cent last quarter," Slatkin boasted. And Poitras was impressed.
A few months later,
Poitras sold four acres of expensive Silicon Valley Property for nearly
$25 million as a prelude to buying himself a house in Hope Ranch. Slatkin,
now not only a friend but also a prospective neighbor, had visited Poitras'
home and knew that he was sitting on a pile of cash. He told Poitras about
sophisticated computer models that he used for day-trading. Poitras was
intrigued and agreed to join a new fund
"I didn't need more money," Poitras says. "I did the partnership with Reed to be connected to Santa Barbara , to meet people and have some fun." He did a little homework and found that Slatkin "checked out impeccably". On December 28, 2000 he put up $5 million toward the new investment fund. In February, he gave Slatkin another $10 million to invest in specialized cash instruments that could be liquidated on very short notice. Slatkin was supposed to get him significantly higher return than the rates typically paid by money-market funds. Poitras planned to use some of the money to buy a house near Slatkin's.
As it happens, Poitras was one of the last pigeons to be plucked in an alleged Ponzi scheme that attorneys are now calling one of the biggest investment frauds in American history - a fifteen year operation involving as many as 850 investors. A preliminary filing in a California bankruptcy court this summer says that Slatkin owes more than $575 million and appears to have assets of less than $45 million. Although the amount said to be owed is probably inflated by dubious investment records, the final tally is still expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The dimensions of the scheme began to emerge at the end of April, when investors learned that their money was all but gone. in early May, Slatkin was forced to seek refuge in bankruptcy court. The horror was compounded when investors realized that the Securities and Exchange Commission has been suspicious of Slatkin since at least 1997; federal lawyers had even interrogated him and his bookkeeper at length more than a year before the investors finally ran him to ground. Month after month, the government did nothing while Slatkin sucked in tens of millions of additional dollars from those who now have little hope of recovering more than a fraction of their money.
LAST NOVEMBER, not long before Poitras turned over his first $5 million, Slatkin flew to New Jersey to meet with one of his long-term investors, the seriously ill Sidney Azeez. Other investors say the sixty-eight-year-old Azeez regarded Slatkin as a son. Together with his actual son, Michael (who was also a longtime investor), Azeez handed over another $10 million before he died a few weeks later.
Slatkin was actively luring in new investors last winter at the same time that his attorneys were repeatedly promising federal regulators that he was getting out of the business altogether. All told, from late last year through the first few months of 2001, Slatkin raised as much as $50 million from friends in the form of loans and investments.
Soon after giving *his* money to Slatkin, however, Poitras had become anxious. "I didn't feel comfortable at all," he says. "I thought about it and thought about it." He decided to get his $10 million back and invest it in a more plain-vanilla account. When Slatkin started stalling, Poitras called a lawyer. Slatkin seemed so rich and successful that it hardly seemed likely that anything was seriously amiss, the lawyer said. "He said, 'You must be a pimple on this guy's butt. He just doesn't have time for you,'" Poitras recalls.
Over the next four weeks, Poitras sent four letters asking for his money with interest. He started leaving unpleasant messages on Slatkin's machine. "You're not going to win," he said in one. "I'm smarter than you are. I'm tougher than you are. My lawyers are better than yours."
Poitras wasn't the
only one getting upset. Slatkin told financial manager Stuart Stedman,
who had invested $18.4 million on behalf of a wealthy Texas family, that
the funds were frozen because of some sort of far-reaching money-laundering
investigation. By this point, another investor -- a screenwriter who wishes
to remain anonymous -- also was becoming alarmed. He wanted to retrieve
his money to pay a tax bill, but when he
Early in April, the screenwriter drove up to the Santa Barbara suburb where Slatkin maintained his office in a drab house that he'd occupied before he became seriously rich. "When I saw it before, it was buzzing with activity," the writer says. "There were four of five Young Turks, and it just looked so real." But now he found "one secretary who was manning the phones like a deer in headlights... I knew by then I was pretty much had."
Meanwhile, Poitras had sent a letter to Slatkin with the heading "GAME OVER". The FBI would be picking up documents from him that day, Poitras warned. "Reed, this is as serious as it can get," he wrote. "If we do not get all the funds due me ... by noon on Wednesday, we cannot stop the train."
THE TRAIN FINALLY
HIT SLATKIN in late April. His attorneys held a meeting of the many "friends"
who had entrusted their money to him and announced that Slatkin was preparing
to file for bankruptcy protection. The room was packed with frightened
investors, and dozens of others were connected by phone. Some were still
wealthy; others were looking at utter devastation. "A bunch of lawyers
were arguing," remembers an investor who was there, " and this
woman from "Florida blurted out, 'What am I
No one at the meeting was sure where anyone else stood. Some had taken more money out of Slatkin's accounts than they had put in, but no one knew who was on that list and whether any of the creditors had colluded in the alleged scheme. "It was one of the worst days of my life," says one of the biggest losers. "Everybody was suspicious of everybody else."
Several days later,
some of the major investors met in Santa Barbara to organize a creditors'
committee. Among those headed to the meeting were George Kriste, the six-foot-eight-inch
chief executive of broadcast company called New Century Media, and Gregory
Abbott, an early EarthLink backer who had bolstered the company by helping
to bring in billionaire George Soros as an investor. Abbott and Kriste
had tens of millions on the line and decided to stop at Slatkin's house.
They stood at the gate before the long, sloping driveway and rang the
bell. Suddenly, a
The stranger in sweatpants identified himself as Ron Rakow, Slatkin's neighbor and friend. "What do you mean, who am I?" Rakow demanded. "Who are you?" You're menacing Reed?" Kriste and Abbott were trespassing, he continued. "Reed's doing his best," he said. "I got hurt like everybody else. We're all hurt. We're all in this together."
The two men left without seeing Slatkin.
In the meantime,
Poitras wasn't nearly satisfied with the sluggish pace of the government
investigation. So he and his attorney, Richard Conn, alerted the Los Angeles
Times to the unfolding story. Days after the newspaper weighed in this
May, the SEC finally swung into action. The FBI and the IRS weren't far
behind. When they raided Slatkin's house in Hope Ranch,
The search was just the beginning. In late June, the FBI also raided Ron Rakow's house. Rakow turned out to be more than just Slatkin's concerned neighbor. A onetime manager of the Grateful Dead, Rakow was a Scientologist and sometime art dealer who had gone to federal prison for mail fraud in connection with a cosmetics scam in 1985. According to someone close to him, Slatkin told associates that he had driven Rakow to prison in 1987, weeping all the way.
After the FBI and
the IRS finally raided Slatkin's office and then his home, a federal grand
jury was impaneled. And a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee began sifting
through cartons of documents -- many apparently fake -- in search of the
loot. But for the investors, it was far too late. They were left to ponder
a couple of shattering questions: Who was Reed Slatkin --
FOR MOST OF THE LAST
TWENTY YEARS, Slatkin, now fifty-two, was a personable if somewhat eccentric
private investor who didn't
"He was so regular," remembers another wealthy investor who joined the "friends" account last year. "He wore sensible shoes and battered chinos and old shirts and baseball hats which he would change for luck. Kind of an adorable guy."
"A bad hairpiece," adds his wife. But the husband says Slatkin dazzled prospective investors with his knowledge of the market and his web of contacts. He was brisk and, above all, reassuring.
But what really gave Slatkin his credibility, what was far more attractive than mere manner, was his position as a titan of the tech revolution. That association had seemingly come to Slatkin as a gift from his friend and fellow Scientologist Kevin O'Donnell.
In 1994, O'Donnell
invited Slatkin to meet a young man named Sky Dayton, who had been a schoolmate
of O'Donnell's son. Then just twenty-two years old, Dayton had graduated
at age sixteen from the Delphinian School, a Scientology-affiliated boarding
school in Oregon. Slatkin and O'Donnell listened as Dayton explained his
idea for a company that would make the Internet more accessible. After
hearing what Dayton had to say, Slatkin
But O'Donnell persisted. "He's a friend," he said significantly. So O'Donnell and Slatkin agreed to put up $100,000 together in exchange for a 40% share of the new company. And the business became Earthlink, now a billion dollar business and the third-largest Internet service provider in the country.
By his own account, Slatkin's investments had already made him a millionaire many times over. But Earthlink bumped him to a whole new level. Slatkin had dabbled in venture capital before but had never made any money - or so he later told the SEC.
"You know, $50,000 here, $25,000, just lose, lose, lose," he said.
He wasn't consistent on this point: Elsewhere in the same interview with regulators, he said he'd made millions in the eighties investing in two businesses.) But Earthlink would shock him.
"It created a very nice windfall," Slatkin said. "It has allowed me to be very charitable to my church and other groups."
In January 2000, nearly a year and a half before Slatkin was forced into bankruptcy proceedings - lawyers from the SEC questioned him in two lengthy depositions. The only subject that Slatkin seemed eager to discuss was his love for Scientology. Asked a simple introductory question about his education, Slatkin embarked on a lengthy riff that continued for more than 20 transcribed pages. He knew Scientology was "controversial" and that the SEC lawyers "may have heard bad things" about it, he said, but Scientology was "the basis of almost everything I've done in my life." At one point, he whipped out a book called "What is Scientology Doing In The World?" "There's much bigger books I could have brought," he confided, "but I didn't bring them."
Slatkin then offered a crash course in Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's theology, explaining that negative ideas and experiences are stored in the "reactive mind". Slipping into Scientology-speak, he talked about treacherous encoded negative experiences. "Over a lifetime - and we'll get into what we call lifetimes momentarily - these experiences can reactivate a person," he explained.
In his religion, he continued, the aim is to ascend the "bridge" of spiritual awareness, which is accomplished by purging those negative experiences. He talked about "field auditors" who learn how to "clear" people using a device called an E-meter that helps ferret out the bad experiences.
Controversy has long surrounded Scientology. In the early eighties, Hubbard's wife was among a group that went to prison for breaking into and bugging federal offices. In 1991, Time published a series of articles describing the church as a "cult of greed and power," a "depraved yet thriving enterprise," a "hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner." The church sued for libel but lost on summary judgment. Though the decision was upheld on appeal, the church is still fighting. A decade after the article appeared, its petition for Supreme Court review is pending.
Slatkin's avowal of lifelong devotion to Scientology came as a surprise to a number of his investors when they learned of it after his bankruptcy. Several say Slatkin had downplayed his affiliation with the church. "He said, 'I just audited a few courses to keep myself alert'," one says. "He said, 'I want nothing to do with the church.'" The wealthy couple say they had once asked mutual friends if Slatkin was involved with Scientology. "I know two people who asked him, and he said he wasn't, " the husband says. "He said to one, 'Of course not. I'm Jewish.' He said to another, 'My wife had an interest in it.'"
Through spokesperson Aron Mason, the Church of Scientology says Slatkin was a parishioner but never an official of any kind. He also belonged to a "religious fellowship" of Scientologists in the business world called the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises, or WISE, Mason continues. But he adds, "Mr. Slatkin could not live up to WISE's ethical standards, and he ended his membership [in] 1998." He declined to elaborate.
Slatkin didn't mention any such thing during his deposition.
But he enthusiastically
referred to Scientology's curative effects: The church's followers believe
it can eradicate a whole range of ills, from drug addiction to broken
bones. "The literature speaks of... people who say they no longer
have arthritis from doing this," Slatkin told SEC lawyers. "Their
Milton Slatkin, Reed's
father, was the son of a tough Russian-Jewish immigrant who founded a
successful construction business in the Detroit area. A family friend
says that Milt, one of five children, was "the weak one," overshadowed
by a charismatic brother. Milt failed when he tried to strike out on his
own in the building business, that friend says. With the
One April day in 1964, the friend continues, Milt confided over lunch that he was profoundly unhappy and hinted that there was strain in the marriage. Two days later, Milt shut himself in the family garage with the engine running. Reed was fourteen years old.
Reed's uncle, Phil
Spickler, who lived in England and studied with L. Ron Hubbard, was helpful
in guiding Reed and his mother through their grief. Six months later,
Reed had an accident in shop class and nearly severed his finger. He wore
a cast for weeks, but the doctor said the finger would be rigid and useless
for the rest of his life. Then his uncle visited again, and
As it happens, Spickler's daughter--Reed's cousin--would become known to filmgoers as Mimi Rogers, the actress (and Scientologist) who at one time was married to the church's biggest star, Tom Cruise. Cruise apparently became involved with Scientology during his marriage to Rogers (although neither seems to have participated in any of Slatkin's investments.) Through a spokeswoman, Rogers says she has not spoken to Slatkin in more than twenty years.
In an odd twist, former Scientologists say that Rogers' father became disaffected with the church in the early eighties. But after his encounter with his uncle, Slatkin told the government years later, he went on to dedicate himself to the church for life.
As a teenager, Slatkin
spent summers in England and Scotland, taking classes from L. Ron Hubbard.
When he attended the University of Michigan in the late sixties, Slatkin
pushed Scientology on campus. A classmate who was active in the Scientology
organization at Ann Arbor remembers him as a "very charismatic, very
dynamic guy--warm, but with sort of a distance to him." This friend
was surprised when Slatkin joined a
Slatkin chose to go to graduate school in Berkeley in 1971 because of a strong Scientology presence in the area. But he decided to give up his graduate studies and devote himself to the church full time. He moved to Los Angeles and took courses at the church from 9:00 AM until 10:00 PM daily (with no weekends off), and by late 1975, he said, he had completed the highest courses offered in Los Angeles. (In Scientology parlance, this would make him a high-level "operating thetan.")
The former church
member and college friend remembers that Slatkin seemed to have a gift
for "regging"--Scientology-speak for the extremely important
process of "registering," or soliciting donations. Critics say
the church "regges" its members ruthlessly and relentlessly
for a broad array of
Slatkin married in the mid-seventies, and he and his wife, Mary Jo, devoted themselves to working full-time for the church until 1984. While they received what he called "honoraria," they never made more than $45,000 a year. By 1983, they had two sons, and Slatkin was ready to start making money. He handed over a "meager amount," borrowed from his mother, to fellow Scientologist Robert Duggan.
Slatkin told investigators that Duggan was a wealthy investor who quickly quintupled Slatkin's original investment. He gave Slatkin a three-year apprenticeship in market strategy and finance. Around this time, Slatkin said, he started developing a computer program to help guide his investments. With the help of this software, which he dubbed "the Base Plate," Slatkin said he became "a self-employed professional investor."
By 1985, Slatkin said, he had earned about $1.5 million. When another three years had passed, he estimated, his personal fortune had grown to $25 million, primarily through stock trading. Through sheer luck, he claimed, he managed to pull his money out of the market before the Black Monday crash in October 1987. That day, he dived back into the market and set himself up to make a killing.
Slatkin wasn't the
only beneficiary of his good fortune. By this time, he had started investing
for a group that he called his "friends." At first, he said,
most came to him through Scientology. He told the SEC that he kept dutiful
records, regularly sending out statements about his activities. He
That year, he told investigators, he decided to put all the friends' money into an account at an institution in Zurich, NAA Financial. Exactly why he made this choice was not clear. He told the federal lawyers that he had met a man named Roland de Lamoussaye at a party, and that de Lamoussaye had recommended NAA. Though Slatkin said he had deposited hundreds of millions of dollars, including money of his own, into a couple of NAA accounts, he couldn't tell the government lawyers whether NAA was a bank or a brokerage or some other type of institution. But he said he had checked out NAA with other Swiss banks and paid several visits himself. His principal contact at NAA was a man named Michel Axiall. "It's just been so many years now that I've dealt with the. It's just so efficient, and [there's] reliability and a feeling of safety," Slatkin said.
Slatkin told investigators
he'd opened the NAA account because "it was very important to have
very clear records of monies that didn't belong to me." He also hired
a bookkeeper, Jean Janu, who worked out of offices in New Mexico, to ensure
that record-keeping was "done at the highest possible standard."
At the same time, however, he was vague when pressed on exactly how the
operation worked. For example, the SEC asked if any of his friends had
wired money from their own brokerage accounts to
If a friend wanted
to liquidate his account, the attorney continued, would Slatkin ever keep
stock that he had bought with that friend's money and repay the friend
from other funds? "You're thinking of things that I haven't even
thought of," Slatkin said. "That's good..... I'll have to think
Asked to explain an outgoing wire for $5 million to Beverly Hills Escrow with the notation "L. L. Dayton," Slatkin said he'd need to look up the transaction. "I can know this, I can know," he said. Then the SEC attorneys asked if Sky Dayton, Earthlink's chairman, had invested with him.
"No," Slatkin replied.
"Would there be money going to Mr. Dayton from the friend's account?" the attorney asked.
"Well, we have some - how to describe this?" Slatkin replied.
The SEC had a document showing that $5 million from Dayton had been wired into, and then out of, the so-called friends' account in June 1999. "You can go ahead and try to explain," one of the government lawyers prompted.
"No. I'm not sure where I'm headed here," Slatkin said.
The SEC then asked about Kevin O'Donnell, who had first introduced Slatkin to Dayton. "Why would there be money coming out of the friends' account to Mr. O'Donnell?" the attorney asked.
"Again, I want to get the detail of that for you, okay?" Slatkin said. "There's an answer." He elaborated a little. "We're business partners," he said. "But when I get any money from anybody... I put it in the friends' account to make sure that it stays segregated, for bookkeeping purposes.... And, like, I know the companies that this money went to. I'm just going to try and get you the detail on that, so I could tell you where it went to, so you could trace it."
In fact, Dayton is listed as a creditor in the Slatkin bankruptcy, though it is unclear - and a spokesperson for Dayton refuses to disclose - how much money is on the line. O'Donnell is also on the list, as are Earthlink's chief executive, Charles, "Garry" Betty, and others at the company.
In the early going, Slatkin served as a financial and management advisor to Earthlink. He remained a member of the board and audit committee until he resigned on April 26. EarthLink stresses that today there is no connection between the company and Slatkin.
In the beginning there was "not very much" in the NAA account, Slatkin told the government lawyers -- something between $7 million and $8 million. But then Slatkin produced a statement, purportedly from NAA, showing that as of March 31, 1999, the amount had grown to more than $217 million.
Hearing about this arrangement, an SEC attorney brought up what seemed like a sensible idea. "If we can confirm with the account in Switzerland that the funds exist," he said, " things like that help."
At that, Slatkin's lawyer, Gerald Boltz, interceded. Boltz had been the SEC's regional administrator from 1972 through 1979, and undoubtedly his prestige was not lost on the lawyers interrogating his client. "Mr. Slatkin has told me that there is no doubt about that," he protested. "And I think he's a person of substantial means. He stands behind this."
"I mean, my own net worth... adds up to in excess of $100 million, and there's other assets out there, too," Slatkin said. "And I would never let these people lose their money."
Slatkin said he'd obliged his investors only through a sense of duty, as prescribed by L. Ron Hubbard. Slatkin showed the SEC lawyers a "duty scale" bearing Hubbard's autograph. "There he is, L. Ron Hubbard," he said. "Like him or not, he's my man."
And so Slatkin had
agreed to be of service. "These people called me and said, 'I'm going
to go on full-time [Scientology] training down in Clearwater. Can you
help me?' ... This gal came to me, she said, 'I want to open up a Scientology
church in Kenya. Would you give me a hand?' I go, 'Absolutely. Let me
help you out here.' And that's sort of what happened.... I felt like I
was really helping, you know, really helping a lot. But I tell
Slatkin insisted that he never asked for referrals. And clearly he didn't need to. When the wealthy couple was introduced to him after having heard great things about him, the wife remembers, "We basically felt it was a gift. We were privileged."
Someone who has been
acquainted with Slatkin for many years says he was capable of great generosity,
especially to those who worked for him. "he has to be a hero,"
the acquaintance says. "His image is everything to him."
Apparently Slatkin was a hero to his many "friends," and they showered him with gratitude. Slatkin insisted that he was never paid for his services, though some of his correspondence suggests he received a fee or commission. The SEC asked about such references, since Slatkin was not a registered investment adviser and therefore would have been breaking the law to accept compensation. "It doesn't look too good, does it?" he replied. Slatkin said he could only guess why his friends might have used such language. "That's their parlance," he said. "It's not from me. You know I didn't say any of those words."
The wealthy couple says Slatkin never asked to be paid. "He said, 'I'm very rich. If I'm successful for you, all I ask is that you make a donation to the charity of your choice.'" the husband remembers. The screenwriter, a far smaller investor, says Slatkin did request compensation. "He said, 'If I do well, I would expect 10 percent,'" that investor says. He told Slatkin to pay himself whatever he thought appropriate. But he adds, "I never did see anything deducted from my statements over about two or three years."
The wealthy couple say they were warned by their financial managers to steer clear of Slatkin, but he seemed to be doing so well -- for them and for many of their high-powered friends -- that they pressed ahead. "he wasn't going to old folks' homes and ripping people off for their social security," the husband says. "This guy was capable of taking almost anyone."
By the time the SEC questioned him last year, Slatkin said he had already decided to quit investing for his friends. He had stopped accepting money by October, 1999, he said, and he had already "liquidated accounts to the tune of over $27 million." It wasn't easy, he added, but "over the next sixty or ninety days we will have this as virtually a fait accompli."
But he said he was struggling with a sense that he was betraying those who counted on him. He said he literally wept over some letters importuning him to keep going. "I've been somewhat nervous about telling my Scientology friends that I was going to stop doing this," he said. "These people who are..., working to help the church or working to get themselves [up] this bridge I talked to you about.... And when they find out I'm not doing this anymore, some of these letters are extremely angry at me."
After giving his deposition in early 2000, Slatkin continued to promise repeatedly that he was liquidating his accounts. But he would not consent to let the SEC contact NAA to verify the existence of the funds. Slatkin's counsel, Gerald Boltz, repeatedly assured the government that the accounting firm Ernst & Young was in contact with NAA and that Michel Axiall and other NAA officials were furnishing the needed documents. Court filings show a letter on NAA letterhead to Slatkin's lawyer, dated February 2000, bearing Axiall's signature.
As time dragged on, Boltz repeatedly put off the date on which the Ernst & Young report would be ready. It would be complete by June 1, 2000, he said. The he said it would be finished at the end of August. Then by September 15. Meanwhile, he supplied all sorts of detail about the funds that were being held by NAA. In October -- just about the time that Slatkin was wooing Poitras -- he offered documents showing that the liquidation was virtually complete. In theory, that meant about $230 million had been returned to Slatkin's friends.
But more than a year after taking Slatkin's deposition, the SEC was still waiting for the Ernst & Young report. In April 2001, Slatkin's attorney finally delivered the shocking news: The documents from NAA might not be authentic. The accounts that were supposed to contain millions might not actually exist. As for the Ernst & Young report, the firm said it would not produce one because Slatkin's lawyer had invoked attorney-client privilege.
Boltz says now that
all the representations that his law firm made to the SEC appeared to
have been fully documented by Slatkin. "We believed that we had received
accurate information," he says. "We furnished the SEC only what
we were given." When it became clear that the Slatkin matter was
turning into a criminal investigation, Boltz's firm withdrew from the
To the horror of investors, the SEC revealed in May that NAA did not exist and apparently never had existed. Michel Axiall did not exist. Roland de Lamoussaye, who had supposedly recommended NAA, did not exist. Documents purporting to prove that most investors had been repaid turned out to be phony.
By then, the nonexistence of NAA did not come as a surprise to Stuart Stedman. He told fellow investors that, once alerted to the possible fraud, he found it "extrordinarily easy" to investigate Slatkin's story. On a Friday morning this spring, he had a consultant send some documents, which Slatkin had forwarded and which bore the NAA letterhead, to Switzerland for verification. The following Tuesday, the consultant called and said that NAA's office in Zurich was nonexistent. The next day, he checked further with Swiss attorneys. Within twenty-four hours, they had verified what Stedman had already been told: The NAA documents were bogus. Anyone who wanted to check Slatkin's story, Stedman concluded, could have done so "in a day or two at most."
Throughout the SEC's long correspondence, Slatkin had continued to collect huge sums from investors like Poitras. It now appears that Slatkin raised tens of millions of dollars in the months before filing for bankruptcy on May 1, 2001. Poitras counted up the times that Slatkin put the SEC off after the deposition was taken in January 2000. "Thirty-two excuse letters and phone calls," he says. "It's just mind-boggling."
Kelly Bowers, the assistant regional director of enforcement in the SEC's Los Angeles office, says Slatkin's story had been difficult for the agency to verify "because of the Swiss angle and the information that we had available to us."
The game would have been over, says Poitras' lawyer, Richard Conn, if anyone had "called five of his friends and asked ... whether they had liquidated their accounts."
Not all the money was impossible to trace. After receiving the $10 million from Poitras, Slatkin promptly sent out nearly $7 million to investors - to which ones has yet to be revealed. He also paid a clutch of personal bills, including membership fees at two country clubs. Now the country-club memberships - along with his house and everything else he owns - are being sold off by the bankruptcy trustee so that creditors can recover at least some small percentage of the money that has been lost. The trustee's report shows that in the three months before his bankruptcy, Slatkin paid out more than $26 million to various parties, including $3 million that went to his family members.
R. Todd Neilson is a former FBI man, a grandfather, a Mormon from Utah, a friend of Senator Orrin Hatch. As bankruptcy trustee, Neilson is supposed to find the money. He has dealt with high-profile rip-offs before, notably in the case of Bruce McNall, the former owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team who went to prison for bank fraud. His manner is one of studied calm. "I'm generally very conciliatory," he says, "I can always get mean later."
At the moment, he is trying to soothe angry investors who are pushing him to go faster and harder - to circle the globe in search of their money. Neilson says he won't be rushed. "I want to gather the cattle and count them before I start sending cowboys into the brush," he says.
Neilson says he's dealing with "a deep level of concern on the part of the non-Scientologists" about the role of the church. His preliminary findings show that Slatkin donated more than $200,000 to various Scientology causes in the year before his bankruptcy. But so far, he says, he sees no evidence of substantial sums going into the church's coffers. "There will be a reckoning, and we'll find out what happened here," Neilson says. "Right now all we have are allegations flying in from fifty different quarters."
Whether the trail eventually leads to the church, as some investigators suspect, is far from clear, but a knowledgeable source close to the bankruptcy investigation says one investigator told Neilson that he and other Scientology-affiliated investors were likely to withdraw from the creditors group should Neilson attempt to recover money from the church. Neilson is being circumspect about his plans. For strategic reasons, it's in Neilson's interest to try to keep the peace among his flock.
The Church of Scientology
says it knows nothing about the money. "The 'missing' funds did not
go the the church," said spokesman Aron Mason in a written response
to questions. "So why would we be concerned about this? (We aren't.)
Moreover, were this to become an issue, I can tell you that the church
does not instruct or govern its members as regards their personal
Perhaps Neilson will have an easier time pursuing what he calls substantial evidence that large sums flowed to Ron Rakow, the former Grateful Dead manager who served time for fraud. The earlier scheme, known as the Culture Farms matter, involved twenty-seven thousand investors and $80 million. According to Christopher Redmond, the Kansas City-based attorney who served as the bankruptcy trustee in that case, Rakow was one of the first of the con men to settle civil proceedings, a feat he accomplished by providing extensive information about the inner workings of the scam. (As it happens, another Culture Farms figure, Christopher Mancuso - who served nine months in prison for his role - is as on the list of Slatkin's creditors.)
Redmond says Slatkin
was questioned in the Culture Farms case and that he was part of a group
of "ancillary players who assisted knowingly or not," in the
scam. Interestingly, Redmond also says expensive artwork was used as part
of "a sophisticated money-laundering process" in which money
was stowed in the Antilles, the Caymans, Liechtenstein, France, the Isle
of Man - and Switzerland. Normally, such information is of great interest
to Neilson. (The Culture Farms bankruptcy proceeding, which has
More recently, Rakow
is said to have traveled in Peru and Switzerland in the months before
the Slatkin scandal broke. A Slatkin insider says Rakow was paid handsomely
to consult with Slatkin on art. Now Neilson says he has questions for
Rakow about art that disappeared from Slatkin's home after he filed for
bankruptcy. And Neilson's preliminary report shows that
In the end, investors who entrusted their money to Reed Slatkin will probably end up with pennies on the dollar. "My view is that we will not find any pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Switzerland or any other municipality," Neilson says.
In late July, Slatkin made a mandatory appearance with Neilson before a meeting of his creditors in a hotel ballroom. It was the first time most had seen him in months. Looking pale and puffy, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment and declined to answer any questions. He made only a brief statement, saying, "I'm not hiding," before his attorneys escorted him out of the room.
Many of those present groaned at Slatkin's words. What may ultimately harm Slatkin the most is the fact that he succeeded in extracting money from so many high-powered investors - including many who still have the money and resources to pursue this case with vigor. "We are relentless," says George Kristie, one of Slatkin's biggest investors. "We are not going to take our teeth off his cuff. This is the end for him."
Kristie and the others will have to be patient. Neilson is moving slowly to track the funds, and officials aren't releasing details of the criminal investigation. Attorneys associated with the case insist that Slatkin depends, in part, on his cooperation with federal authorities. As of the end of July, Neilson said that Slatkin hadn't gotten good marks.
Meanwhile, Poitras is left to wrestle with the magnitude of his loss. "You have nightmares about it all night," he says. "You wake up thinking, I hope it's not real." Poitras says he has given up a happy retirement to pursue his new job. "Now I have to work full-time to put Slatkin in jail," he says.
Poitras has ruefully
concluded that when he joined Sings Like Hell, he inadvertently bought
himself "a $15 million concert series." To help erase the memory,
he insisted on being airbrushed out of a photograph in a Sings Like Hell
brochure that showed him standing, wearing a broad grin, with Reed and
Mary Jo Slatkin. Thanks to computer magic, the organization