A billion-dollar a year criminal enterprise flourished for more than a decade in Sarasota, Florida, using a boiler room run by what financial crime specialists call a “hyena pack” of fraudsters and con-men who manufactured phony shell and dummy front companies on an industrial scale ready to be used in money laundering and penny stock fraud.
After operating with impunity for a number of years, the chief fraudster sought protection from prosecution with the Sarasota office of the FBI. Protection granted, he continued to operate.
Why should it end? They were protected. Things became so laughable that, in one memorable scam, every single officer except Andy Badolato was arrested for fraud. Yet the scam was something Badolato, as company treasurer, should have been charged with first.
“Detective Emilius has confirmed that the FBI will be taking over this investigation into possible security interest fraud.”
“Badolato has already informed the SEC and FBI of this, and he is already assisting the FBI with another situation.”
Soon Sarasota had become the new Brooklyn, specializing in what used to be called white-collar crime. And the FBI looked on, while Steve Bannon’s longtime alt-right MAGA buddy Andy Badolato was busily “busting out” more than a dozen public companies.
Andy Badolato used public companies which had no assets, and no product, or staff, and which were so ephemeral that many of their own investors remembered nothing about them. Maybe just the corporate name fading into smoke, forgotten by even the low-ball penny stock suckers who invested their money in them.
Badolato’s selling proposition was offering fleeting moments when someone mired in debt could buy a few hundred dollars worth of Powerball lottery tickets, and sit at the bar, making no attempt to scratch them off yet, happy to reside in a fragile moment of hope.
Badolato occasionally wrote for the alt-right paper of choice, Breitbart, run by Bannon. He also co-produced a number of Bannon’s documentaries.
But if you remember his name, it’s probably because of his first brush with fame, which happened in August 2016.
Just as the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton slugfest tuned up, Steve Bannon was caught out in a scandal which led him to hurriedly re-register to vote at Badolato’s Sarasota beach house, even though he never lived nor voted there.
In light of what was to come, it was a tempest in a very tiny teapot. But without it, the Sarasota hyena pack and its Steve Bannon-Andy Badolato-nexus might never have become public.
Enormous changes at the last minute
On Wednesday in Washington Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin, in charge of the Capital insurrection investigation, held his first press conference.
He said, “Just yesterday, our office organized a strike force of very senior national security prosecutors and public corruption prosecutors.”
The addition of prosecutors experienced in public corruption was widely noted. They were going after the money.
“It is essential to determine how the money flowed in this coup attempt,” Sherwin continued. “Logistics, legal work, comms, equipment, supplies, as a start. And we need to know how dark money groups provided support, and which American corporations underwrote the effort.”
Sherwin’s call for investigation touches subject areas I am lucky enough to have poked around in. It’s all in my book, “Gangster Planet,” coming out later this spring.
But there now seems to be an urgent need to lay some of it out right away, even if it is still a little roughly-formed. Descriptions of things like the ‘tourmaline’ sunsets over Casey Key will have to wait.
Well, okay then…Try this:
“A transnational criminal network big enough to fit the parameters of what was called RussiaGate—until Donald Trump’s smoothly effective Big Lie propaganda machine made the term seem unfashionable—still exists and remains visible.”
“In Sarasota, there is an international Mob- to-Mob partnership which little resembles the “RussiaGate” straw man Trump successfully branded a “hoax” through constantly repeating the same phrases over and over. Thea tactic is usually called “brain-washing.” “Russiagate as Trump defined it narrowly, was Russian state involvement.
A little preachy?
Was Russian state involvement visible in the mean little (pop. 58,000) town of Sarasota?
If treason were poetry, I’d say “Let us go there and make our visit.”
But it’s not. So, as they say in television, let’s take a look.
Charlie Moore, the man & the myth
When he first appears in newspaper records way back in 1965, he is already operating as an informant.
In the May 18, 1965 Arizona Republic, FBI Agent Charlie Moore told the House Sub-Committee on Un-American Activities, “Hard-core communists fomented the student rebellion at Berkeley.”
Moore said the riots at the University of California “were classic techniques used by Communists and radicals.”
This was not, in 1965, a stop-the-presses-type revelation.
More than 40 years later, Sarasota fraudster Jonathan Curshen takes a meeting in a hotel room in New York on Sept. 4, 2008 with an FBI undercover agent who is also identified at trial as “Charlie Moore.”
In his hotel room meeting with Curshen, Charlie Moore is wearing a wire. At the end of a recorded conversation in which Curshen offers Moore, posing as a stock promoter, an unheard-of kickback of 30 per cent on a piece of stock fraud being put together, the FBI steps in and arrests him.
Is this the same Charlie? Could this be important?
News accounts remain a little vague.
“A few years ago the FBI arrested Jonathan Curshen in a broker bribery sting, in which, according to prosecutors, he paid a kickback to an undercover FBI agent called “Charlie Moore,” read one account.
Another said, “Charlie Moore was posing as a person with access to corrupt brokers. The agent agreed to have the brokers buy shares of Industrial Biotechnology Corp., a Washington State pink sheets listing that Mr. Curshen had been paid to promote.”
That was from the New York Times, and is readily identifiable, because no other paper still puts “Mr.” in front of proper names.
“Mr. Curshen pleaded guilty to the charges in June 2009.”
Joey Barquin is as close to a hipster as white bread Sarasota, Florida, will probably ever see. Although he has spent thirty years living on Florida’s Sun Coast, his skin has a nighttime pallor. He wears a fedora, with its brim pulled down over his eyes. It’s a Rat Pack-ready look. He looks like a racing tout.
I can still hear his voice in my head as I listened to him speak over the phone. “There’s something you need to see,” he told me in a whisper, as if someone might be listening. It’s Andy’s house.”
“You’ll need to take a short drive to find out.”
At that time I lived less than a mile from Badolato’s Casey Key home. That’s by water. I didn’t have a boat, so it was a little farther by land.
“Go take a look at the beach house I showed you before, the house Andy bought with money he siphoned out of me.”
Joey said, “Don’t ask questions. Just go there and you’ll see.”
I said I would and hung up, but then I wavered, silently asking myself what could be new in a four-year old scandal, which by 2020 was reminiscent of a yellowed old postcard, worn around the edges—in short, ancient history. My curiosity, however, overcame my lethargy. I went.
I wanted to know more about the connection between Sarasota and transnational organized crime.
JOEY: Now, we are back to that. We’re back to April 11, 2003, when the SEC identifies “Freedom Golf” as an Internet pump and dump scheme.
JOEY (continues): This is about Curshen. This is in Vancouver. A probe started up there in 2007 when Vancouver police launched a sting operation targeting a Vancouver promoter.
The big dog in Sarasota, and elsewhere
The name of the big dog in the Vancouver Stock Market is left unsaid in this brief exchange. He is (or was, since he died in 2016) Adnan Khashoggi, and his role will later loom large.
Ten long years later, when Jonathon Curshen’s business partner Andy Badolato was finally arrested, I wondered if Badolato hadn’t taken one look at the FBI agents busting him and seen Chris Hansen from Dateline.
Hansen, of course, specialized in busting up secret dates set up by hapless schlubs with under-aged girls. And under-aged girls play a relatively out-sized role in Andy Badolato’s sex life, which has been entertainingly documented by the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff’s Deputies were no strangers to the beach house where Steve Bannon famously took up residence and registered to vote before the 2016 Presidential election. He aimed to quell a variety of disturbances, including a rumor that his ex-wife was running a crack den.
But Bannon never lived in the house. When Sarasota Sheriff deputies visited the house, it was always to see Andy Badolato.
And here, as if on cue, would enter Chris Hansen.
“Hi Andy, what’s going on? Did you have a hard time finding the place? It’s a little late to be prowling around here, don’t you think? Why don’t you have a seat. I’ve got a couple of questions for you.”
Good things come to those who wait
The rosy state of affairs during which Sarasota remained fertile soil for stock fraud lasted until the middle of August of last year.
Then, everything changed, and Stephen K. Bannon, former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, and Andy Badolato were arrested, along with and two other men, for money laundering and fraud associated with the “We Build The Wall” foundation.
On August 20, 2020, Bannon and Badolato woke to discover FBI agents on their way over, to the house, in Badolato’s case, and to the yacht, in Bannon’s case, owned by Bannon partner, Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, cruising off Connecticut. They were taken into custody and charged—along with two other men—with laundering money for the ‘We Build the Wall Foundation.’
Their first reaction must have been bewilderment. WTF? We’re protected! On its heels came a growing realization: Something changed.
Here I am, at this very moment, being arrested for fraud and money laundering, and I have only one question: Why start now?
Until that moment four months ago, Andy Badolato had been busy with a decade-long series of criminal acts sometimes referred to as white-collar crime. He has never before been called to account.
At the press conference in Manhattan announcing the arrests, every Federal agency got thanked, even if they’d only lent a couple of paperclips to the joint task force brining the build the wall fraudsters to justice.
The only Agency that didn’t get an “atta boy?”
The Sarasota FBI.
The importance of Being Sarasota
Badolato continued to helm his boiler room operation from the office of the owners of The Infinium Building, at 2033 Main Street in Sarasota, who include local civic officials, as well as one worthy individual—an officer in a half-dozen pump-and-dump companies stripped of assets and bankrupted—who has been named Sarasota’s Man of the Year. Twice.
Because it’s that kind of town.
However, at the time of his arrest four months ago Andy Badolato looked much diminished, an over-weight and worried middle-aged man, whose slumped posture as he left a federal courtroom in Manhattan after bonding out had little of the brash alt-right vigor on evidence when he briefly walked across the national stage five years ago.
Today, in retrospect, it is clear Sarasota was a potent MAGA funding source. But I made the mistake of excusing much of it as typical low-level organized crime. It wasn’t.
Personally, I think most financial crime is boring. So are some of its practitioners, who come across as accountants, with green eye shades and an angle.
But Sarasota’s alt-right-MAGA crime ring was endowed with personality to spare. The reason is likely because they were also involved in major drug trafficking.
Drug trafficking, most of which still takes place by air, routinely involves mysterious, sometimes spectacular, plane crashes.
One happened just last Saturday.
So for a moment let’s look at some of the major drug moves with which the group was involved. We’ll come back to the subject of unpunished financial crime in Sarasota. It isn’t going anywhere.
A blast from the past
Last Saturday, Richard Boehlke, 9/11 flight school owner Wally Hilliard’s partner in a doomed airline start-up in Florida called FLAIR, for Florida Air, flew his Cessna Citation V twin-engine business jet into the ground from 11,000 feet, with an unidentified passenger aboard, in a rugged unpopulated Indian reservation in Oregon.
Rick Boehlke was both a pilot, and a fraudster. His unfortunate crash allows a look at one of the group’s most storied financial heists.
Aviation observer Dan Gryde quickly posted a three-part video asserting Boehlke had committed suicide-by-airplane. Another aviation expert vehemently disagreed.
Here’s what I know: its been eight days since the crash, and the two bodies discovered in the wreckage have not been publicly identified. Which seems passing strange.
Rick Boehlke was a “player.”
While supplying both the planes and the pilots for the new Florida Air, Boehlke’s Harbor Air was going bankrupt. So were two other of Boehlke’s companies, Crossings Aviation, and Crossings Development, a Portland condo deal for which Boehlke borrowed $17 million, mostly unpaid, through Capital Consultants, a pension fund management company that was in the midst of somehow “losing” $320 million dollars.
The biggest beneficiary of the money they were giving away in Portland may have been Wally Hilliard’s Florida Air, which soon had wangled its first celebrity endorsement, when then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris publicly praised the airline.
Praising what was already a losing proposition seemed out of character for Harris.
“Huffman Aviation Inc. has had problems in the last few months with Florida Air, with the city of Venice, and with Sarasota County and the state of Florida, but the school keeps flying,” the Venice Gondolier reported.
Turns out, Huffman Aviation wasn’t paying its rent out at the airport.
“Huffman rent is late again,” the paper headlined on May 12th.
“When Huffman Aviation paid three months of overdue rent last Friday, company president Rudi Dekkers said the rent wouldn’t be late again. “No, we won’t have this anymore,” he said during an interview last Friday.”
Headlines in the Venice Gondolier about Florida Air grew less flattering as time went by. My personal favorite:
“City threatens lessee with eviction, again.”
“Huffman Aviation Inc. is again on notice from the city to catch up on its rent payments or face eviction from the airport,” the paper wrote on June 9th.
Nothing had changed by mid-summer 2001. “Huffman rent late, again,” the paper reported in mid-July. “For the sixth straight month, Huffman Aviation Inc. has failed to pay its rent to the city on time.”
A month before the September 11th tragedy, Huffman finally paid the rent.
“The biggest fraud by an investment manager in history.”
Boehlke accused Dekkers of not having enough experience to run a commuter airline and training facilities. “He (Dekkers) was an oxymoron the day I met him,” Boehlke told Portland reporter Eric Mason. “I can’t believe anyone handed him millions of dollars to run a business he had no experience in.”
No honor among thieves. Boehlke was hot news because of his concurrent participation in what the Securities & Exchange Commission has called “the biggest fraud by an investment manager in U.S. history.”
In 2000-2001, Boehlke owned Harbor Air which serviced a US Navy base in Whidbey, Washington. Harbor Air was known locally as the “Navy’s airline” because its function was to serve personnel flying in and out of the nearby Naval Air Station.
Unfortunately, he was also involved—at the same time—in the massive looting of pension funds in Portland, Oregon. Hardest hit ($60 million) was the pension fund of the Laborers Union, called the biggest Mob-run union in America.
Boehlke was so anxious to deflect attention anywhere else that he said the “M” word. “I’ve known Jeff Grayson (Capital Consultants’ former CEO) for 12 years,” Boehlke said. “I have never known him to have any shady or, you know, some have asked me about… Mafia affiliations.”
“Ex-money manager charged with fraud” was an AP headline. A federal grand jury had indicted Jeffrey Grayson, whose firm had ‘collapsed.’ Grayson’s clients lost over $355 million in failed and fraudulent investments.
It is unknown if anything in Rick Boehlke’s past had anything to do with the crash.
But two earlier crashes of pilots with histories of drug trafficking bore eerie similarities, including that of a drug trafficker whose feats rivalled Barry Seal’s, who also owned an airline called Florida Air–FLAIR. (More on Kenny Burnstine anon…)
“For Boehlke, the sun-drenched parties aboard his personal Grumman Albatross with friends in the San Juan Islands were over. His huge flying boat—an amphibious seaplane used by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard as a search and rescue aircraft— sits for sale at the Tacoma Narrows Airport in Gig Harbor, along with other assets from his troubled aviation company.”
Observers noted, however, that he was not running noticeably short of cash.
“Boehlke would do anything for money, he was so desperate,” an aviation executive who had witnessed Boehlke’s descent told me in 2003. “I’m surprised he hasn’t skipped the country by now, what with all the trouble he’s gotten himself into farting around with those Mafia boys down in Portland.”
Florida Air’s only accomplishment—other than the big public endorsement from Katherine Harris, may have been to provide a rationale for the presence of a half-dozen out-of-date British Aerospace Jetstreams poised on the tarmac of Florida airports, within easy reach of Caribbean hot spots. But they were a presence at the Venice Airport when I arrived in early 2002.
The massive Mob-led ($352 million) looting of pension funds in Portland, Oregon was a non-story almost everywhere. Hardly anyone know about it, even at the time.
The money was stolen in a highly-organized, systematic, no-nonsense fashion, according to the Portland Oregonian, from the pension funds of mostly-Mob-led unions.
Hardest hit ($60 million) were the pension funds of the secretaries and laborers of the Laborers Union, often called “the biggest Mob-run union in America.”
Analysts said that to get the same retirement benefits they had before their pension fund was looted, unfortunate workers would have to spend an extra decade working.
Alvin of Arabia
Who had the temerity to steal from the Mob? Mobsters. One big recipient of the pension fund largesse was Alvin Malnik, whom Readers Digest once called “Meyer Lansky’s heir as head of Organized Crime.”
Less well-known is the fact that Malnik, who admits only to being a Jewish lawyer from Miami, has extremely close ties—family, ties, actually—to a leading Prince of the Saudi Royal Family.
Boehlke’s end of the organized bust-out was more than $12 million. He used some of it to purchase a half-dozen British-made Jetstream regional jets for the soon-to-be-bankrupt new “airline” Florida Air.
Portland ABC News Reporter Eric Mason interviewed Boehlke about his participation in the Ponzi scheme. “The financing between Mr. Boehlke and Florida Air, which was a sister operation to the flight training center which trained Mohamed Atta, was murky, “Mason reported.
Applied to the business affairs of people doing business with people who were doing business with Mohamed Atta, “murky” is not a word you want to see describing the case.
“Murky” was also used the word used by Federal Bankruptcy Judge Paul M. Glenn to describe SkyWay Aircraft—about which much more later—located just north of Sarasota County in St Petersburg, while presiding over SkyWay’s bankruptcy.
SkyWay Aircraft, an engine of both the financial fraud and drug trafficking, is covered in a separate chapter.
Meet Jackson Stephens, American superspy
Then Boehlke built–one hundred yards from Huffman Aviation at the Venice Airport—— a gleaming facility for his elder-care company, Alterra.
In the other direction was the national headquarters of Arkansas wheeler-dealer Jackson Stephens’ nation-wide elder care behemoth Beverley Enterprises.
Just down the block from Boehlke’s assisted living home in Venice, Florida— and a stone’s throw from the Venice Airport—stands a stately complex that had been built to house the national headquarters of nursing home giant Beverley Enterprises, owned by Arkansas’ Jackson Stephens.
Gleaming like a movie set basking under Florida’s sunshine, the building still houses Stephen’s former law firm, Boone Boone & Boone, which according to local observers still runs the town of Venice.
A quick google search shows Jackson Stephens name has been linked with scandals from Mena Arkansas and contra cocaine to the PROMIS software scandal, most often paired with America’s super-secret National Security Agency, which he was said to “informally run.”
Rudi Dekkers claimed he and Hilliard met Boehlke through a mutual friend in Ohio. I later learned he’d been lying. But what had he been lying to protect? Was there a connection between the assisted living industry and covert operations?
At the center of judicial proceedings
It was sort of like identifying Al Capone as a guy who ran a bar in Cicero, Illinois. It may be true as far as it goes, but it falls well short of being a complete description.
Today Badolato is at the center of a criminal case involving judicial celebrity Steve Bannon.
Federal prosecutors accuse Badolato of conspiring with Bannon and two others to siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars from the campaign to raise private funds for Trump’s border wall.
Badolato pled not guilty before a federal judge in New York and was released on bail. Disabled military veteran Brian Kolfage, who founded the campaign, and Colorado businessman Timothy Shea were also charged and released.
All denied wrongdoing, but none as flamboyantly as Bannon, who looked sunburned, disheveled, and unrepentant in front of reporters after being released by a Federal Court in Manhattan.
Ironically—or not—the crime Bannon and Badolato are charged with—money laundering—is the same offense Bannon warned Michael Wolff in his book ‘Fire & Fury’ could ensnare Trump during Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The financial fraud the two partners engaged in was on a scale large enough to have easily provided several hundred million dollars as seed money to launch what would later became known as RussiaGate.
Floundered like unwanted babies
All of them floundered like unwanted babies exposed to die on a cliff in Sparta. Very few got a Christian burial. Because many of the companies went on to rise from the dead, resurrected like zombies with names like the Renewable Company. They were given a new name, and a new corporate mission, and no one was the wiser when they were publicly listed again.
We’ll take brief looks at some of the more interesting. They included: “About Main St Inc;” “Donna Messenger Corp” (with partner Steve Bannon); “EC-3;” “Halcyon Partners;” “Crabby Bill’s;” “Red Sea Management;” “Triton Network Systems;” “Teranex;” ” Military Command Technologies;” “Co2tech;” “Big Game Holding;” “Homepals,” IBVR. Bye-bye Now.com;” “Cambridge Analytica;” “Sargon;” “Sinofresh;” “Savviss; and “Infinium.”
Also Frogads.com, The Kingdom of Humanity, The Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads, Geo-Bio Inc. E-3. Uniphyd.
Also “Titan;” “Surebeam;” “Globalnet.com;” “Telsat;” “Jitney International;” “Bio-Flovorance Technologies;” The USA Exchange Inc.;” “I-PREPAY.com; “I-Teleco.com;” “Telsatnet Inc;” “World Capita Communications, Inc.”; “XO Communications, Inc;” “Homeland Security Tracking Inc;” “Skyway Communications Inc.”; “Donna Blue Aircraft Inc;” “GenesisIntermedia.com;” “Genesis Aviation;” “Genesis Aeronautics;” “The DuPont Investment Fund;” and “White Knights & Vultures.”
If Henry Ford brought technology to bear on the problem of mass-producing cars, guys like Badolato and Bannon performed a similar feat in modern finance capitalism. They brought modern management concepts to bear on a perceived problem in serial financial fraud, for people who felt that financial fraud was lucrative, sure, but it took too long, and the scores were too far apart.
Andy’s answer was speed. He had companies circling overhead, ready to land whenever a previous flight crashed and burned, which they always did.
We’ll take a look at a few, briefly, before passing on. As earlier stated, financial fraud is (usually) boring.
Andy Badolato’s The Renewable Corporation was a Washington company with a Utah transfer agent. With Badolato presiding at all times, The Renewable Corp had formerly been known as Industrial Biotechnology Corporation.
Industrial Biotechnology Corporation, in turn, had formerly been known as Newtrack Mining, which had formerly been known as Track II Industries, which had itself formerly been known as Bare Track Industries.
Clearly nothing good would come of it. But it kept getting recycled, fitted with a fresh name, and a new symbol for the OTC.
Other pump and dump schemes the network was involved with, are presented to show how industrious Andy Badolato et al were about serial stock fraud.
Sarasota fraudster helped out Semion Mogilevich
In some ways, Curshen is the personification of the foot-soldier in today’s transnational organized crime. He’s multinational. He has dual U.S.-U.K. citizenship. His primary allegiance may be to a third country, Israel, with whose interests he was apparently closely aligned in a fourth country, Costa Rica, the country where Curshen spent most of his time.
Also he has a specialty: international money laundering.
The name of one of his most famous clients just came to light. By that I mean with no false modesty that I discovered it, in a little-noticed ruling of the Supreme Court of the Seychelle Islands, which one can imagine as quite a tribunal.
Curshen’s newly-revealed client is one of the principal warlords of out time, Erik Prince, for whom Curshen laundered money in the Seychelle Islands in the Indian Ocean, about as far from Southwest Florida as it is possible to get where they still use machine guns.
Mr. Big-ski, his ownself, Semion Mogilevich.
Whose story is in a subsequent chapter.
The official story leaves something to be desired
Here’s the official story:
After his dealings with a loan shark turned ugly in 2008, Andrew Badolato sought the help of the FBI, agreeing to record calls as the government built a case against a man it said was involved in organized crime.
Around this same time, Badolato assisted the FBI with a second case, providing information that helped prosecutors send one of his associates to prison for securities fraud.
It may even be partially true. But Badolato, according to eyewitnesses, had been taping his phone calls for years—including with Bannon—to forestall just this kind of eventuality.
Before Bannon shared a home address with Andy Badolato, the pair partnered in a series of business ventures that included homeopathic nasal sprays, cosmetics and fragrances.
Reported POLITICO, which could have done better:
“The ventures came during an overlooked chapter of Bannon’s career, in the years leading up to the most recent financial crisis, when Trump’s incoming chief White House strategist dove into the world of penny stocks.”
Long before the wall-building project came along, Bannon and Badolato worked together on a steady diet of penny stock fraud supplemented by political documentaries. These, some say, have given Badolato some keen insights into Steve Bannon’s affairs.
But Badolato’s history of assisting the FBI raised the prospect that he could turn on his partner Steve Bannon after years of collaboration, according to interviews with former prosecutors.
“The two of them knowing each other well is an important piece for a cooperator,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in New York. “You want someone who can say, ‘I’ve known this person for years, and this is what we did together.’”
Badolato’s lawyer declined to comment on the case, or his defense, or whether his client flipped, and, if he had, whether he had flipped before Steve Bannon, and thus gotten a better deal from the Feds.
The question hung in the air. Who was going to flip first?