|RE:Netcurrents NTCS - NY Times article 09/03/01:|
September 3, 2001
"In 1980, Mr. Meyer and Mr. Friedman were indicted in a federal criminal complaint based on the coal mining partnerships. Both men eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to assist in the preparation and filing of false income tax returns and were sentenced to prison. Mr. Meyer entered Federal Prison Camp Allenwood in Montgomery, Pa., on March 1, 1982, and was released on July 16, 1982."
Entrepreneur Is Quiet About His Past and Gets New Start in Net Surveillance
By MICHAEL BRICK
Twice, Irwin Meyer has sailed on big ideas to some degree of fortune.
The first time was in 1977, when he found a struggling play based on a comic-strip character and helped turn it into the unlikely Broadway hit, "Annie." It earned him a Tony Award for co-producing the best musical of the year.
The second time was in 1999, when he discovered a technology that could scour Internet chat rooms for rumors, innuendo, opinions or lies about a particular person or company. He created a company to offer the service to any business worried about its image — and its stock price.
To win the trust of investors and clients, Mr. Meyer boasted of his Tony Award, and of the years he spent as a television and commercial producer in Hollywood. What he did not mention was his conviction for tax fraud, which put him in a federal prison for four months in 1982.
Some of the people who wanted to become involved with Mr. Meyer and his Internet technology took the time to check his background, though it did not stop them from working with him. Others said they looked but did not find his conviction. Many, however, were too eager to join the Internet gold rush to do much more than read the incomplete biography that Mr. Meyer submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission as a routine part of running a publicly traded company.
Mr. Meyer said he did not make a point of mentioning his conviction nor try to hide it. "I don't wear a sign," he said. "Everybody who's ever worked with me knows about my background."
The story of Mr. Meyer's reinvention as an Internet entrepreneur is emblematic of the paradoxes of the technology boom. It may have seemed that a bunch of 24-year- olds were "leveraging" the Internet — to use the vernacular that helped start so many dot-com companies — to take over the business world. But the larger truth is more nuanced and stranger than the notion that Daddy Warbucks invented the New Deal. And now that the boom times are over, Mr. Meyer has a mess on his hands.
At 66 years old, Mr. Meyer comes across like a college drama teacher, theatrical and assured. His approach is: Listen, I'm gonna explain something to you. And he can be very convincing, given the right audience.
When Internet stocks began their run-up, Mr. Meyer was in California and decided to shift his focus from Hollywood to Silicon Valley. In 1999, he used his foundering movie-production company in Los Angeles to create a new-economy start-up and began casting about for something to do.
He first dabbled in satellite Internet access, buying a company called eSat, but switched to Internet image-management after merging with another company, Infolocity. He changed the name of his company — initially the Ventura Motion Picture Group, then the Producers Entertainment Group and most recently the IAT Resources Corporation — to the jazzy-sounding NetCurrents Inc.
The company would use technology developed by Infolocity to monitor Internet chat rooms on behalf of companies willing to pay for the service. At the time, the Internet was so sexy and stock manipulation so worrisome that clients, including big names like Oracle and Office Depot (news/quote), began to line up. Then the Kroll-O'Gara Company (news/quote), the world's most prominent investigation company, signed an exclusive global alliance with NetCurrents to offer enhanced Internet intelligence services to corporations.
NetCurrents' heady early days are but a memory now, and so are many of its clients. It is hard to sell image-protection services to companies that cannot even afford many of their employees anymore. NetCurrents' stock, which traded for as much as $11.94 a share in March 2000, now sells for less than 11 cents. So few people want to buy it that Nasdaq has removed the stock from its market, crippling the company's ability to raise additional cash to cover losses and repay debts. NetCurrents said in its most recent filings with the S.E.C. that it had laid off all its sales representatives and technicians.
Mr. Meyer now spends his days looking for someone to invest more money in the company — and searching the Web for anyone who might be criticizing it, or him.
The company has already sued one man, Victor Holtorf, the former chairman of one of its subsidiaries, for making disparaging remarks about Mr. Meyer on online message boards. They have since settled the suit, though Mr. Holtorf, who still owns stock in the company, said NetCurrents had not met the financial obligations of the settlement. He would not specify the obligations.
Mr. Meyer has overcome financial obstacles before. For example, he and his partner, Stephen R. Friedman, had some difficulty raising their $250,000 contribution to the budget for "Annie," according to a 1977 Washington Post (news/quote) article on the show, though they eventually came up with the money.
At around the same time, the two men shared in sales commissions totaling $4 million, government records say, by selling more than $20 million in tax-sheltered limited partnerships in a coal mining operation. Among the partners who bought in were celebrities like Elvis Presley, Margaux Hemingway and the singer Alice Cooper. Mr. Presley, for example, paid $505,000 and deducted $2.6 million from his taxable income for 1976.
But the S.E.C. filed a civil complaint against Mr. Meyer, Mr. Friedman and others on Sept. 21, 1978, contesting the partners' rights to any coal under a piece of property around Gillette, Wyo. The federal government owned 95 percent of the rights, and that fact cast doubt on the profits and tax benefits that Mr. Meyer and his partners had promised the investors, the S.E.C. said.
In 1980, Mr. Meyer and Mr. Friedman were indicted in a federal criminal complaint based on the coal mining partnerships. Both men eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to assist in the preparation and filing of false income tax returns and were sentenced to prison. Mr. Meyer entered Federal Prison Camp Allenwood in Montgomery, Pa., on March 1, 1982, and was released on July 16, 1982.
The "Annie" company disassociated itself from the two men, and Mr. Meyer's lawyer, Martin R. Gold, said at the time that his client was "finished in the entertainment business," according to the archives of United Press International.
After regaining his freedom, however, Mr. Meyer moved to California, where he spent 16 years producing commercials and television programs. His company received production fees for the program "Dave's World" and for the movie "What's Love Got to Do With It?"
When Mr. Meyer turned his attention to the Internet, the most important part of his transformation was to buy Infolocity, a company run by James J. Cerna Jr., who is listed as an inventor of the technology used by NetCurrents.
To promote the company's services, Mr. Meyer appeared on the CNBC program "Power Lunch" in March 2000. "We have found in recent months, and I guess growing on a daily basis, an enormous amount of information and misinformation coming across the Net," he said on the program. Three days later, the company said it had closed a private placement of its stock, raising $8.5 million.
Before the summer was out, Mr. Meyer's reinvention as an Internet fraud expert received an impressive stamp of approval when Kroll-O'Gara teamed up its Risk Consulting Services division with NetCurrents — in the process, receiving warrants to buy 5 percent of NetCurrents' stock.
At the time, there was no mention of Mr. Meyer's conviction for fraud, but Jules Kroll, chairman of Kroll-O'Gara, said in a recent interview that his company knew about it.
"We did exhaustive due diligence on the company, technology, directors, management and in particular the somewhat colorful history of its C.E.O.," Mr. Kroll said. "You can imagine, given what we do for a living, it was an issue for us."
He added, "I do believe in redemption, under certain circumstances."
Mr. Meyer said that he told Mr. Kroll about his jail term.
"It would be foolish of me to go into business with the world's largest investigation business that has a division that checks people's backgrounds and assume that they're not going to check my background," Mr. Meyer said.
But others did not learn of the conviction until long after they went into business with him.
Mr. Cerna said that his lawyer had investigated Mr. Meyer's background and never found the conviction. "To get in the position he's in now, he's found a way to hide it," Mr. Cerna said. "You would think, in the spirit, he should disclose that. We had no intention to get involved with anyone that has a history of fraud."
Several customers also said they were unaware of Mr. Meyer's conviction, though they said they were pleased with the service.
"It was immensely valuable to us," said Jennifer Glass, a vice president at Oracle. "We would get a heads-up on rumors and general sentiment about Oracle within the online community."
Ms. Glass and Lauren Garvey, a spokeswoman for Office Depot, said, however, that NetCurrents had discontinued its service to them without explanation.
Mr. Meyer said that he felt obligated to his shareholders. They want him to do what he has always done when he found a new business idea, like the little orphan girl, the tax shelters and the Internet security blanket.
"They're looking for me to secure another round of financing," he said.