Presto Change-O, You've Been Duped

— La Jollan Alfred Louis "Bobby" Vassallo claims that he knows President Bush well, mowed Ross Perot's lawn as a lad, and was personally feted at the Monaco Grand Prix by none other than Prince Albert. "It's fun knowing someone who owns his own country. It's great for getting your own table in restaurants," says Bobby, who has been calling himself "Dr. Vassallo" since getting an honorary degree from a Mexican institution.

Vassallo's children have attended ultra-upscale private schools both here and abroad, while their parents, Bobby and Cynthia, wheel about in Mercedes-Benzes and more expensive vintage luxury cars.

But the handful of employees remaining in Vassallo's company, Presto Telecommunications, have gone for long stretches without pay. More than 600 shareholders are realizing that their stock is probably worthless.

Several shareholders and former insiders have given massive amounts of information to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is formally investigating Vassallo and his company for possible fraud in the sale of Presto stock. Shareholders, concerned where their money went, are particularly alarmed about Vassallo's relationships with financial institutions in sleazy offshore tax and secrecy havens.

All along, investors -- including the usual gaggle of pro athletes and physicians -- were attracted to one asset: Presto's alleged license, called a concession, to provide domestic and long-distance telecom services in certain Mexican markets. Presto, earlier known as Automated Telecommunications, never generated revenues. But that Mexican concession was thought to be a potential gold mine.

Now, more and more investors believe the license is not -- and possibly never was -- of much, if any, value.

I have been provided with reams of documents -- all of which have also gone to U.S. government investigators. I have interviewed former insiders, shareholders, and creditors. I can give absolutely no encouragement to shareholders, although Hollywood producers could well make some money on this one -- another in a long line of San Diego investment hallucinations.

In a column July 17, I pointed out that the Caribbean's most corrupt bank ever, the now-shuttered First International Bank of Grenada, had a slug of stock in Presto. In a nutshell -- emphasize the syllable "nut" -- one Gilbert Allen Ziegler, a self-proclaimed minister who went bankrupt, set up a bank in Nauru, a slimy central Pacific tax haven used mainly by Russians. Then, flashing a passport from the nonexistent nation of Melchizedek, and putting up a $20 million ruby that didn't belong to him or the bank, Ziegler established the First International Bank of Grenada. It attracted fools' money by offering up to 250 percent annual interest, along with gooey religious rhetoric. When the bank collapsed, Ziegler fled to Uganda, taking the bank's Uganda assets along.

For the July 17 column, I asked Vassallo's lawyers how Presto stock got in the Grenada bank. I was told that Presto management had had nothing to do with it. That was utterly false, documents reveal. On October 15, 1997, Vassallo wrote a testimonial letter to Ziegler. Vassallo was pleased with "excellent service and professional handling of our account by Fidelity International Bank" of Nauru, Ziegler's bank.

Later that month, William R. Davis, treasurer of some Vassallo enterprises, including Automated/Presto, wrote a letter heaping praise on Ziegler's Nauru bank, pledging to shift trust funds there. In December of 1997, Davis was named attorney-in-fact for Ziegler's bank, in addition to his duties for Vassallo.

This is when Ziegler's bank began acquiring shares of Automated/Presto, documents reveal. The documents also show that Davis continued to deal with Ziegler after he moved his scam machine to Grenada.

During this period, Davis also drooled more piety than Ziegler. Davis set up Project Exodus. Purpose: "To bring Faith to the people by revealing and proving, by action, the truth of God's love and inheritance provisions in Jesus Christ." Vehicle: Members -- including Vassallo -- were to get a certificate of deposit that "will yield a minimum of $300,000 per annum," according to Exodus literature. That $300,000 annual gift was meant "to allow you to devote one hundred percent of your productive life to help us bring the message of God's love in Jesus Christ to people throughout the world."

Huh? Where would Davis come up with the money? "He had no clue how the real world works," says major Presto investor Kenneth Scott Cousens, who knew both Davis and Ziegler -- in fact, introduced Ziegler to Davis and Vassallo. But as soon as Ziegler went off the beam, Cousens dropped him.

Davis continued his offshore hustling for Vassallo. Ziegler's banks provided extensive services to Automated/Presto. Vassallo and Davis used another tax haven, the Isle of Man, for other schemes.

As documents and interviews reveal, there are serious questions about Vassallo's claim that his company had the $100 million in assets necessary to get the Mexican license. Worse, there are strong doubts that the concession is still valid. Santa Monica's NIFTI, LLC plunked big money into Presto to market the concession. When nothing materialized, NIFTI sent private investigators to Mexico. Now, NIFTI chief executive Gail Howard calls the license "this facade of a concession." Its validity is very doubtful, investigators found. NIFTI spent thousands of dollars on the investigation and gave all its materials to government investigators.

Cousens believes that originally the Mexican license was valid. But Vassallo simply did not have the cerebral capacity to build a successful telecom network or company. By early 2000, "The incompetence began to turn to culpability," says Cousens. By year-end 2000, he believes that Vassallo knew that the Mexican government would not permit Presto to operate a telecom system. But the company continued to recruit investors. "Any investment taken after that point was pushing limits that will be best decided by a court of law."

When he had to have the $100 million in assets to show the Mexican government he could handle a license, Vassallo turned to one Trevor Prider of Irvine. In April of 1998, Vassallo warned Prider in a communication that the financing is "highly confidential." At another point, he boasted to Prider, "We (Presto) are the darlings of Mexico ('flavor of the month') currently."

And what of Prider? On December 19, 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged four Virginians with running a prime bank scam, by which promoters promise fantastic returns through rapid buying and selling of foreign financial instruments, but never, ever come through. In spring of 1998 -- about the same time Vassallo was dealing with Prider -- one of the Virginians went to Prider, who claimed his program could make 300 percent a week. Yes, a week. If the Virginians would plunk down $500,000, Prider said he could provide a "statement of account" worth $10 million. Prider failed to perform, of course.

There are questions about Presto's accounting. In August of 1999, as he prepared for an audit by Pannell Kerr Forster, acting chief financial officer Kenneth W. McNerney complained to Vassallo that "I have never been given access to any books, records, contracts, equity reconcilement, or ledgers at any time in the past years, and therefore I take no liability for its appropriate content, legal accuracy, or adherence to accounting principles." The Pannell accounting firm resigned the account, according to San Diego managing partner-audit Robert Sporl. He refuses to say if he talked with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Prominent San Diegans Ernie Hahn and his father Ron, who own and run the Sports Arena, are major Presto investors. Ernie went on the board briefly. "There was a long list of companies that Bobby said were in the process of auditing the books," says Hahn. "The concession was the only good asset, and we [board members] couldn't get information on it. If Presto has a concession, there is a serious company to be run."

But could Bobby Vassallo run a serious company? Investors and former insiders say his credibility is low and his memory weak -- a deadly combination. I learned that one reason that several National Basketball Association players got Presto stock is that they had invested in oil wells with Bobby, and the wells had failed completely. So he gave them Presto stock. I cannot find evidence that Vassallo actually got rich in the oil business in Texas, as he claims.

Vassallo and his two lawyers would not respond to phone calls or faxed questions. Davis, Prider, McNerney, and Ziegler could not be reached for comment.

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