A self-proclaimed “philanthropist/entrepreneur” with a history of sponsoring for-profit reconstruction conferences in disaster areas — including after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the BP Oil Spill — is bringing his roadshow to New Jersey.
Or, he was. Now state officials are trying to stop it.
The Attorney General’s office was in court Friday seeking to stop the event, “Superstorm Sandy Reconstruction Summit.”
The state accuses the event’s sponsors of several Consumer Fraud Act violations, including conducting business in the state under assumed names that are not registered, falsely implying that the sponsors are affiliated with or endorsed by federal, state or local government agencies and through misleading advertisements.
The complaint says Consumer Affairs became aware of e-mails promoting the event on Nov. 27, the same day Bamboozled learned of the event.
Set for Dec. 17, it promised to connect attendees with “local, state, and national government, business and nonprofit decision-makers.”
Photos of senators and even former President Bill Clinton are on the event’s website, which says: “Our efforts are strongly supported by Congressional and other national leaders.”
The site also includes a quote from President Obama, and the presidential seal — the official, legitimacy-lending presidential seal — imposed over a satellite weather map.
Or, it did, until Bamboozled starting asking around.
Before the state went to court, it told us:
“The Christie Administration and the Attorney General’s Office can verify that no one from the Administration plans to attend or participate in this ‘summit,’ ” said Eric Kanefsky, acting director of the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs. “We have very real concerns about the legitimacy of this event and the way it has been promoted.”
Kanefsky said the agency is looking at the event “very closely.”
“The event’s website claims it will feature ‘decision-makers’ representing state and national governments, even though no one from the Administration is involved or will attend, and we have no knowledge of any participation by the federal government,” he said. “We also question whether the organizers have obtained the legal authority to conduct business operations in New Jersey.”
The event came to Bamboozled’s attention after an informational e-mail landed in the inbox of the New Jersey AARP, which to date has donated $310,000 for Sandy relief in the state. Because AARP has a history of donating to and helping with causes it deems worthy, it wanted to know more.
But something didn’t seem right, so governmental affairs manager Douglas Johnston reached out to Bamboozled.
“(There was) no sign that it was officially sanctioned or sponsored by state or federal officials, just that they were invited and that one had to pay even just to participate in the conference via a live webstream,” Johnston said.
The website also says the event will be held in Trenton, but it didn’t give a specific location. Nor does it tell the cost. Until you register, that is.
We sent a message to the site’s informational e-mail address, asking about the cost.
“For companies, the early registration fee (until 12-7-12) is $175. Registration is free for government officials, military officials and relief organizations,” the e-mailed response said.
We asked about the fee for homeowners who had losses.
“Registration is complimentary for homeowners with losses,” it said.
We tried to register to confirm the pricing. There was no drop down menu option for homeowners, but for free, one could register as a government or military official, a company with losses from Sandy, a Sandy relief organization or the media. Or, one can register as an “attendee.”
“Attendee” sounds like how most Sandy homeowners would classify themselves, given the options, so we selected that.
The fee was $175. It went up to $275 after Friday.
Not exactly complimentary.
The other option was to pay $100 to attend via webcast, and that offered no differentiation for the type of group or individual one might be.
MORE INFO, PLEASE
The website is not specific about who’s in charge, but the “United States Leadership Forum” runs the site.
William “Bill” Loiry is the “philanthropist/entrepreneur” who heads up the group.
The bio on his website says: “Loiry founded the United States Leadership Forum, organized to bring together government, business, military, nonprofit, community and diplomatic leaders to find solutions to the critical problems facing the United States.”
Loiry has an interesting résumé. He spent decades in family publishing, was a member of the Clinton Global Initiative — which tries to tackle world problems — and he says he organized the Congress-led U.S.-Russia Homeland Security Trade Mission and other events about terrorism or natural disasters.
While some of his events brought in heavy hitters, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), participants and vendors say past conferences were not what they were billed to be.
An investigation by The Lens, a nonprofit news organization in New Orleans, found that since 1996, 16 judgments were issued against Loiry or the now-defunct Equity International, the for-profit company that ran previous events. The judgments included $110,000 of unpaid bills to event vendors and a $100,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service, The Lens found.
Loiry himself said in an interview after his 2011 Gulf Coast Restoration Summit, which focused on the BP oil spill, that the event only raised $37,000 but he owes local vendors $75,000 for event-related services.
He didn’t say then where that $37,000 went.
Loiry said in previous interviews that profits from Equity International went to his salary and operating expenses. He also said in June 2011 that the new entity, United States Leadership Forum, is waiting for the IRS to approve its requests for nonprofit status.
That has not yet been approved 18 months later, according to public records.
Critics say Loiry and his organization are preying on the desperation of those affected by natural and other disasters.
“He might be less moral than BP because he’s come in here after (BP) already messed it up, claiming to help, and then shifting us around like this?” said videographer Mike Feduccia, who said Loiry owes him money for videography services at the 2011 event.
It seems Loiry hasn’t cleaned up those old messes while he offers help to clean up the Jersey Shore.
Loiry filed for bankruptcy in Florida in 2011, and the case is still open because two of his creditors are arguing in court that the debts owed to them should not be discharged in the bankruptcy.
Even his insinuation that he has an “in” with Clinton is fishy. While Loiry was an inaugural member of the Clinton Global Initiative — which means paying a $20,000 annual fee — it does not mean unfettered access to the former president.
“William Loiry is not an active member of the Clinton Global Initiative and has not been a member since 2008,” said spokesman Craig Minassian. “Loiry was not invited to return due to his failure to meet CGI’s membership requirements.”
So what exactly is Loiry promising here in New Jersey?
On Dec. 5, those who registered finally received an e-mail confirming the conference location: The Trenton Marriott.
Curious, we called. The hotel said Loiry booked space for 75 people.
Hours later, after more than a week of phone and e-mail tag — and before we received the statement by the state that no one from the administration would be attending — we reached Loiry about the event.
We asked how many people he was expecting. He said around 150.
Sounds like a tight squeeze.
We next asked for specifics about which leaders would be there.
“We have a variety of decision-makers,” he said. “We’re hoping that Gov. Christie will accept our keynote invitation.”
We asked who else should be expected.
He said to expect Rev. Tom Hazelwood, the assistant general secretary for disaster response for UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Hazelwood confirmed to Bamboozled he will present for 15 minutes about UMCOR’s work on Sandy, and that he’d never before attended a Loiry event.
The summit also invited James Rivera, an associate administrator for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance, Loiry said.
“He or a designee will talk about small-business financing,” Loiry said. “They always speak at our events.”
But not this one.
“(Mr. Rivera) didn’t recall receiving an invitation from this group, so SBA will not be participating,” said spokeswoman Carol Chastang.
Loiry also said the president of humanitarian services from the Red Cross would be there, but he couldn’t remember the person’s name. We asked the Red Cross.
“It was not clear to us that participants would be charged a registration fee for the event,” said spokeswoman Diane Concannon. “Given that and the fact that the Red Cross is one of only a few confirmed presenters, we’re not comfortable participating and will be withdrawing from the conference.”
Our telephone interview with Loiry was interrupted, but we continued via e-mail.
We asked why the presidential seal was taken off the site.
“I wanted viewers of the website to realize that the Administration is fully behind short-term relief and long-term reconstruction,” Loiry said in an e-mail. “We took it down after some sensitivities were raised.”
To critics who say Loiry’s events don’t provide what is advertised, he said: “Nonsense.”
“Our strength is the quality of the programs we design and confirm for each of our events,” Loiry said, noting that more than 1,000 government, business, nonprofit, military and diplomatic speakers have made presentations at his events.
We also asked about the finances of past conferences, in particular, the one that raised $37,000 but had $75,000 in unpaid vendor costs.
Loiry said the $37,000 went toward expenses.
On Friday night, Loiry said he was shocked by the state’s lawsuit, and he called the Attorney General’s office “shady” and “shameful.”
“I voluntarily traveled to the Attorney General’s office in Newark earlier this week and answered all of their questions,” Loiry said. “They thanked me and said they would be in attendance at the summit. Instead, they have called all of our speakers and scared them into not speaking.”
We’ll let you know if the summit happens.