NEW ORLEANS -- If you just read the bankruptcy filings, Adam Swickle and John Mannone are the white knights who came to New Orleans and saved a major riverfront development project from the bad guys.
'We were getting rid of some bad elements,' Swickle said, referring to investors who had promised to make the Market Street Power Plant into a $2 billion residential, retail and entertainment mecca, only to default.
Swickle and Mannone, childhood buddies from New York, sued to get Michael Samuel, T.J. Fisher and Stuart 'Neil' Fisher off the Market Street project. Those were the investors who had bought the plant from Entergy and then got tied in with Mayor Ray Nagin.
Fisher had written in an email that Nagin would 'get a piece' of a deal to sell the plant. Samuel had worked on the project with Frank Fradella, the Covington businessman who pleaded guilty last summer to a conspiracy to bribe Nagin. And, to top it off, Samuel had hired Nagin for a consulting gig after he left office.
But a closer look at Swickle and Mannone's past investments shows that they, too, were associates of Samuel's. And their history raises serious questions about whether they can deliver on their promise to pay their debts for Market Street and get a 40-year eyesore back into commerce.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission went after Swickle for fraud in 2003, and got a $600,000 judgment against him in federal court in New York for setting up an allegedly fake foreign exchange trading house and making off with investors' cash.
Swickle says he's innocent, that he was just collecting money from a few close friends and family to get a new online trading business off the ground. But a federal judge ruled that he lied to an FBI agent who had posed as an investor, bragging about a fake track record and bogus audits of his company, United Currency Group.
More than seven years after that judgment, Swickle hasn't paid a dime.
He says he was going through a nasty divorce at the time and couldn't afford to pay. But he's claimed poverty to avoid paying judgments for more than a decade, even while his lifestyle says otherwise.
He lives in a $1.4 million mansion in Parkland, Fla., which is listed under an associate's name. It's 5,000 square feet, with five bedrooms, five and a half baths, a swimming pool and lake and golf course views. And Swickle keeps a new BMW, a Range Rover and a Porsche in the driveway.
One creditor sued Swickle and claimed that he transferred his Porsche to his new wife to avoid having it seized.
Swickle claims he didn't even know about another $144,000 in judgments against him in New York, this time for knowingly selling real estate investment shares as a part of a fraud scheme that landed three others in jail.
Irv Stitsky, Mark Shapiro and William Foster were convicted in 2009 of real estate securities fraud for collecting investments in their Cobalt Multifamily housing projects based on lies and false ownership of some properties. Records showed Swickle and his and Mannone's company, DTA Holdings, collected tens of thousands of dollars in commissions for investments in Cobalt.
In addition, when Swickle was a Wall Street broker in 2000, he bought the debt of a man who had purchased some rare stamps, then sent the seller, Leo Constantinides, $76,000 in bogus checks. Constantinides said he's only been able to collect a small portion of what Swickle owed.
Even when New York state courts found Swickle in contempt, it didn't get him to pay.
'He said he had no more money to pay and... whatever we thought he would have he was in other people's names,' Constantinides said. 'If he was practically bankrupt, had nothing in 2004, how come he has now, as you told me, a house in Florida with two expensive cars?'
Swickle and Mannone were brought into the Market Street project by Samuel, with whom they were doing business in Miami. It was on a major luxury condominium project in South Beach called South of Fifth. And once again, it left investors holding the bag.
In 2008, Samuel said only seven of the 28 condo units were still available, and he offered to give anyone who bought them a $260,000 Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder.
A year later the lender foreclosed on an $80 million mortgage, and it turned out that only three of the 28 units had been sold.
A South of Fifth investor who wished to remain anonymous told us he lost $100,000 on the deal. He said he could never reach Samuel about getting his money back. Instead he got a dismissive letter from the person who managed his investment for Samuel -- John Mannone.
Samuel's company handling that project was called Matrix LLC. Mannone said he formed Matrix Capital LLC specifically to administer transactions for Samuel to sell equity in the project to investors.
But Mannone said he and Swickle were also duped by Samuel, who had supposedly guaranteed the investment but then backed out of it.
'With regard to Matrix Capital, the investment contract did provide for a personal guarantee that Mr. Samuel disavowed based on his interpretation of the guarantee,' Mannone wrote by email.
'Unfortunately, Matrix Capital was not able to legally enforce the guarantee and had to remove ourselves from management, because we were in a fiduciary capacity and were conflicted out among the investors and Samuel.'
Strangely, Matrix Capital LLC took out an ad in an online used machinery exchange saying 'We have ended up with a large polar circular crane, made by P&H that we would like to sell. The crane is primarily used for nuclear power plants. It has a 180-ton capacity.'
The ad said to contact Adam Swickle.
Such large cranes, even ones that are more than 30 years old, sell for upwards of $500,000.
Swickle declined to say where he has gotten the money to invest in Market Street and these other projects while he's been unable to pay court judgments.
Samuel had received major acclaim for his Midtown Miami development in 2005, although the urban mall/residential project didn't succeed until after Samuel got out of it. Samuel is now in Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Mannone said that when he and Swickle agreed to buy a portion of Samuel's share of the New Orleans project, they were 'still enamored by (Samuel's) reputation' as a successful developer.
Records show that Mannone and Swickle's company NOLA Development Partners has put $500,000 into the Market Street project to remediate asbestos and get it out of bankruptcy. They also borrowed millions from local businessman Joe Jaeger. And yet, Mannone said he's confident that they'll be able to repay their debts and even make a profit.
And Jaeger said he is not concerned about Swickle's past or investment track record.
Of course, Swickle's other creditors have heard those promises before.
'I'm amazed with how he gets away with all this, but the authorities should know better,' Constantinides said. 'We say in Greece, you know, the right hand doesn't want to know what the left hand is doing. In other words, what is happening in New York, California or Florida or Mississippi doesn't want to know, which certainly facilitates the acting of people that have criminal tendencies.'