kCK man charged in $7.2 million fraud scheme that targeted thousands of investors nationwide
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced today that a Kansas City, Kan., man has been charged in federal court for his role in a $7.2 million securities fraud scheme that victimized thousands of investors across the United States.
“A federal criminal complaint alleges that Petro America was an empty facade of a business run by deception and false promises,” Phillips said. “Petro’s founder is charged with defrauding unwary investors by selling them worthless stock in order to support his lavish lifestyle.”
Isreal Owen Hawkins, 55, of Kansas City, Kan., was charged in a two-count criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Mo. Hawkins is the president and CEO of Petro America Corporation. A related civil forfeiture was filed against Petro America on Friday, Oct. 22, 2010.
The criminal complaint charges Hawkins with securities fraud and with structuring financial transactions in order to evade federal reporting requirements. Hawkins founded Petro America, which bills itself as a holding company for crude oil and gold mines (among other claimed assets) in 2007.
Count One: Securities Fraud
According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Hawkins began selling shares of unregistered stock to investors in 2008. At the time, the affidavit says, Petro America had no oil, no realistic prospects for obtaining, transporting or storing large amounts of oil, no significant assets, no revenue and no other employees. The government is aware of no evidence that Petro America has seriously pursued any opportunities to acquire oil fields or conducted oil trading operations. Nevertheless, the affidavit says, Hawkins and others have touted excellent prospects for Petro’s rapid growth in the oil industry.
According to the affidavit, more than 9,000 victims have invested in excess of $7.2 million since August 2008, but instead of using that revenue for legitimate business-related purposes, Hawkins and his co-conspirators allegedly withdrew investors’ funds from Petro America’s bank accounts in cash, which they spent on personal expenditures such as a house by the lake, luxury cars, a $5,700 fur coat, a $37,000 boat, a $5,200 piece of Louis Vuitton luggage purchased in Switzerland, expensive jewelry and travel.
Hawkins, the only full-time employee of Petro America, paid himself an annual salary of $595,000 under a contract that also granted him a $175,000 bonus, 500 million shares that are immediately exercisable, a company car, a company apartment in Missouri, and a dining card. Hawkins drew his salary in cash, in random amounts at inconsistent times, and the company did not withhold taxes.
Conspirators often recruited investors through churches and used religious language in their pitches, the affidavit says, including promoting Petro America as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “share the blessing.” Petro America cultivated a relationship with the African American Ministers Alliance Group, the affidavit says, and according to its records made large payments to multiple Kansas City-area pastors, religious leaders and a local civil rights activist.
Investors lost from $100 to $100,000 each. Initially, many of the investors were drawn into the scheme with the promise that $100 would buy 100,000 shares of Petro America stock, the affidavit says, which Hawkins claimed was “book valued” at $2 per share. As the scheme progressed, conspirators raised the price to invest and claimed an ever-higher “book value” for the shares. The affidavit alleges that this allowed conspirators to unload shares to new investors at an increasing profit. To date, the affidavit says, the stock has never been properly registered or listed on any exchange.
Hawkins allegedly promised “meteoric returns” on investments. At the height of the scheme, the affidavit says, up to $700,000 flooded into the company each month.
Hawkins claimed that Petro America would be “the first African-American holding oil company to go public in the United States,” according to the affidavit. Investors were frequently told that they would be rich when the company “goes public.” Going public, the conspirators allegedly have said for over two years, is just weeks away. In reality, the affidavit says, the company has no significant assets or revenue stream (other than investor proceeds).
Alleged False Claims
Today’s affidavit alleges that Hawkins and co-conspirators provided materially false information to investors. For example, Petro America’s Web site includes a prominent photograph of the luxury office building at Two Pershing Square, ostensibly Petro’s “world corporate headquarters.” In reality, the affidavit says, Hawkins contracts with Regus Management Group LLC, a secretarial service that provides such services as telephone answering, fax and mail handling, use of the address and 16 hours of office usage for an initial monthly fee of $225.
According to the affidavit, conspirators have touted Petro America acquisitions in gold and rock mines as valuable holdings worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In reality, the affidavit says, Petro America’s interests in the gold and rock mines are essentially worthless. Petro America allegedly adopts wildly high valuations for the mines, most or all of which are not producing anything. Many or all of the mines are not actually mines at all, but mining claims. A mining claim is merely a plot of government-owned land upon which a person or corporation has filed a claim of rights to a mineral deposit, which may or may not actually exist.
Based on these representations, Hawkins and others claim that Petro’s assets are worth more than $284 billion. According to the affidavit, if this valuation were accurate, Petro America would be the second-largest company in the United States by market capitalization, larger than Wal-Mart, Apple or Microsoft. America’s largest company is Exxon Mobil, which has a market capitalization of $312.28 billion.
Count Two: Structuring Financial Transactions
Under federal law, banks are required to file Currency Transaction Reports for financial transactions that exceed $10,000 in one day. It is illegal to conduct multiple cash withdrawals in amounts less than $10,000 for the purpose of evading that federal reporting requirement.
The affidavit alleges that Hawkins and others made large cash withdrawals from Petro America’s bank accounts, which were structured to avoid bank reporting laws. For example, according to the affidavit, Hawkins and an unidentified co-conspirator visited Mazuma Credit Union several times each week. Sometimes they made big deposits of multiple checks into the company’s bank account; on most visits, the affidavit says, they withdrew $7,500 to $9,800, often on consecutive days. In this manner, Hawkins obtained at least $537,515 in cash from Petro’s account at Mazuma. The affidavit also alleges that Hawkins structured currency withdrawals out of Petro America accounts at U.S. Bank and Bank of America.
Web Site Support For Fraud Victims
Two Web sites have been established to collect information from the victims of the alleged securities fraud scheme and to provide updated information about the status of the case. Investors of Petro America are encouraged to provide information via an online form at postalinspectorsurvey.com/PetroAmerica. Due to the volume of expected responses, this process has been automated and placed online; all communication from potential victims regarding the case should be made via this Web site. Updates about the status of the case will be posted at justice.gov/usao/mow/petro.html
Phillips cautioned that the charges contained in this complaint are simply accusations, and not evidence of guilt. Evidence supporting the charges must be presented to a federal trial jury, whose duty is to determine guilt or innocence.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel M. Nelson. It was investigated by IRS-Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Office of the Missouri Securities Commissioner.
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