JAN 3, 2011 @ 05:46 PM 5,850 The Little Black Book of Billionaire Secrets
Sleeping Cops At SEC Give Bio Willie Operator A Pass
Daniel Fisher , FORBES STAFF
I cover finance, the law, and how the two interact.
Willie's not going to get rich on Bio-Willie fuel. Image via Wikipedia
Dennis G. McLaughlin III has to be one of the world's best salesmen -- and one of the world's most incompetent business executives. The flashy University of Oklahoma grad once talked Morgan Freeman, Willy Nelson and Julia Roberts to endorse his debt-laden biofuels company despite a record of financial failure. Now McLaughlin's in Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation, fending off more than $27 million in claims from creditors and disgruntled former business partners. But you'd never know that from the financial filings and statements by his latest publicly traded companies, Evolution Resources and Big Star Media, which tout his previous ventures without mentioning how they turned out.
Which raises the question: Why does the Securities and Exchange Commission let Dennis get away with this? I first exposed his shenanigans back in 2007, when he was touting Earth Biofuels and its "Bio Willie" fuel, named after the outlaw singer and onetime director Willie Nelson. Investors in that ill-fated outfit, which once included Freeman and Roberts among its cheerleaders, never knew that McLaughlin had presided over a $100 million gas-trading bankruptcy in 2001 amid allegations of fraud by its creditors. McLaughlin later ran Ocean Resources, a penny-stock marine salvage operation that fired him over allegations he'd milked cash out of the business through a consultancy he controls. No acknowledgment of that, either, in Earth's filings. (McLaughlin said Ocean's claims were baseless and the firm owed him money.)
The SEC investigated McLaughlin in 2006, according documents insiders shared with FORBES, expressing a particular interest in the constellation of consulting firms that surround the businesses he runs. But the probe seems to have fizzled out (the SEC refuses to comment on investigations). I tried to reach McLaughlin himself, but lawyers listed in his Chapter 7 filings say they no longer represent him and the phone for Evolution Resources wasn't working.
A disgruntled creditor did talk, however -- and offered some insight into how McLaughlin might keep the cash flowing. The creditor says McLaughlin tried to pay off a debt with common stock in his company, even recommending a Boca Raton, Fla. broker, since sanctioned for penny-stock scams, who could supposedly sell the shares on the open market.
Steven Benevides sold his telecommunications company to McLaughlin in 2005 for $450,000 in cash and a $1 million debenture. As he has done repeatedly over the years, McLaughlin never paid a dime on the debenture (ask the folks at Sandell Asset Management, who lent him $50 million for some inexplicable reason). When Benevides pressed him to pay up, McLaughlin offered him Earth shares instead. He says McLaughlin also directed him to a broker at Newbridge Securities in Boca Raton, Fla. who could sell the stock for cash.
McLaughlin said "let me put the shares in your account and this guy can sell `em for you," Benevides recalls, laughing. "I told him `If the stock is worth something, you sell it and give us the money.'"