Too Good to Be True

Always assume that promoters claiming they're out to do good are out to do well. And companies whose mission is saving the world are trying to pocket your savings.

Last week, Amr (Anthony) Elgindy, a penny stock market player who once lived the life of luxury in Encinitas, was found guilty in New York of securities and wire fraud, racketeering, and extortion. He could spend more than ten years in prison. He is appealing the sentence.

Through his Internet companies, Elgindy spotlighted overpriced stocks for short-sellers or speculators betting that certain stocks would fall. There is nothing wrong with this per se. Short-selling is an integral part of market activity.

But Elgindy was charged with misappropriating confidential information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, extorting companies by threatening to reveal negative information if they didn't pay him, and cheating his subscribers by shorting stocks before sending the damning information to them.

Throughout the trial, Elgindy's lawyers claimed that he was a Batman fighting evil, a reformer, an altruist. But those who had dealt with him, myself included, got a belly laugh out of those assertions. He had started in his early 20s with a tough crowd -- disreputable brokerage houses tied to onetime San Diego stock manipulator Melvin Lloyd Richards, who went to the pokey in Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York. Later, Elgindy claimed he had reformed. I used some of his material twice in the late 1990s and found it accurate, but I became suspicious when on one occasion he initially said he did not have a short position, then called back to admit that he did.

Elgindy provided information to government agencies. Once, an investigator in the U.S. attorney's office here wrote a letter to another agency, saying that it couldn't have nabbed Richards without Elgindy's help.

In 2000, I learned that he was in trouble in Texas. He raced down from Encinitas to show me a tape of his appearance on ABC's 20/20 program exposing Richards. Barbara Walters slobbered all over him. He claimed his life was in jeopardy; he was shown taking target practice. I told him I was not impressed; the column appeared the next day. Shortly, he pleaded guilty to felony mail fraud and spent four months in a work-release-type house before resuming his activity in Encinitas. In 2002, he was arrested on charges that resulted in last week's convictions.

The prosecutor's office declared, "Elgindy's conviction marks the end of his public charade as a crusader against fraud in the markets."

On July 1 of last year, a news release datelined San Diego warned of "an unexpected Ice Age in months, not decades!" Global warming can bring an Ice Age any day now, said the release. The Gulf Stream could stop flowing abruptly. In short order, we could enter a mini-Ice Age lasting 300 to 500 years that "would be devastating!"

These dire warnings came from Joseph LaStella, president of Green Star Products of Chula Vista. Frightened out of my wits, I tried to reach LaStella by phone, fax, and e-mail. I received no response. In September, I tried again in vain.

But here's what I could glean from a variety of sources. Green Star owns 35 percent of American Biofuels, which has a plant in Bakersfield producing biodiesel fuel from soybean oil. The company boasts that it will get enhanced subsidies from the corporate tax bill passed in late October and that assembly member Shirley Horton of Chula Vista is working to get pro-biodiesel legislation passed in California.

On its website, Green Star's latest financial statement is for 2002. There is no explanation of why newer information is not available. Green Star boasted that it "increased its assets by $940,035 from December 31, 2001, to December 31, 2002. The company is on a strong turnaround mode." Sure enough, the balance sheet shows assets of that sum. But the outside auditor, in a report dated July 8, 2003, says, "The company has no assets, has suffered recurring significant losses," and has other deficiencies. Therefore, there is "substantial doubt as to the company's ability to continue as a going concern." So what happened to those assets between year-end 2002 and July 8, 2003?

The company had at year-end 2002 a cumulative deficit of $9 million. The stock sells for 4.5 cents a share.

A company in a related field is Save the World Air, which once claimed to have a device that would virtually eliminate auto-exhaust pollution. This firm was based in La Jolla four years ago. But in 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged that some officers had issued fraudulent press releases and posted phony Internet messages to run up the stock. The wondrous device to eliminate auto pollution simply did not exist, said the commission. In 2002, the company agreed to obey securities laws. But the securities regulator is still pursuing one of the former officers, as is Save the World Air.

New management now has control over the allegedly marvelous invention. Some famous folks took over the company and moved it from La Jolla to North Hollywood. The chief executive is Edward L. Masry, the activist attorney. Erin Brockovich Hill is vice president of environmental affairs. (Julia Roberts played Erin Brockovich in the movie of that name. Albert Finney played Masry.) However, this company is a chronic money loser, too, and admits there is substantial doubt about its survivability. Its cumulative deficit is $14.9 million, and growing.

Then there is World Transport Authority, which last month abandoned its longtime El Cajon location for an office in Beverly Hills. Its mission is to show people in undeveloped nations how to build Worldstar utility vehicles for basic transportation. But it has been losing money for years, and the Ivory Coast civil war has erased its one chance to get a little revenue. Its cumulative deficit is more than $14 million. "Management cannot determine when the company will become profitable, if ever, or when operating activities will begin to generate cash, if ever," laments the company in official filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. There is substantial doubt whether it can continue as a going concern, according to its official filings.

In a press release early last year, World Transport reported "positive progress on corporate structure." The previous year, "The company had gone through some legal problems resulting from the arrest of its founder in March of 2003 for alleged fraud," said the news release. The company had removed its president in late 2003 "because of substantial infractions and violations of board resolutions."

The founder is Douglas Norman. He also founded a bank on the Cayman Islands, an offshore tax haven. Early last year, he was wearing an electronic bracelet so the district attorney's office knew where he was. The DA's office was successfully prosecuting some San Diego rascals who had stashed funds in Norman's offshore bank. In early 2003, Norman was indicted in New York for artificially inflating World Transport's shares by sending out false news releases and postings on Internet message boards about the prospects of the Worldstar vehicle. He was imprisoned, but the New York case did not go forward, according to Steve Davis, deputy district attorney in San Diego.

World Transport has something in common with the City of San Diego: it is having trouble getting an audit completed. There are other similarities: in November, the company reported in a government filing that it is "continuing to investigate the conspiratorial and fraudulent conduct of past officers and directors in diverting company assets and funds, [and] at the same time cooperating with the [Securities and Exchange Commission] in prosecuting the founder of the company for his alleged violations of federal securities laws." "Nobody has been paid," says Roger Brown, secretary. The stock sells for less than a penny a share.

Global Health purports to be a biotech. On September 9, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against Global Health, three related companies, and two telemarketers that appear to be operating from San Diego. The telemarketers, Vince Dory and Joshua Adams, were soliciting investments in a company that supposedly has a cure for cancer.

The telemarketers sent potential investors -- mainly elderly -- a letter on Food and Drug Administration stationery saying that the agency had approved the cancer treatment and Global Health could soon market it. "The FDA letters, however, are forgeries, and the claims are false," says the securities commission. Investors' money has been sent to two different mail drops in Otay Mesa and from there went right over the border and was cashed or stashed in a Tijuana bank, according to the securities commission.

It appears the alleged conspirators aren't too bright. One investor got a glowing letter on Food and Drug Administration letterhead. It predicted that Global Health's cancer treatment could rake in $1 billion in sales in a year. But it was addressed, "Dear Investor." And it was signed by Dory. Why would Food and Drug send an "A-OK" letter to a company's shareholders? And why would a letter on Food and Drug's letterhead be signed by a company's chairman? A federal judge has frozen the assets and demanded repatriation of funds from Mexico. "We have not found Dory and Adams," says Michael Piazza, the Securities and Exchange Commission attorney on the case. "One may be operating out of New York."

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