Fl. Attorney General – Scam Alert
Under Investigation: The inside story of the Florida Attorney General’s investigation of Wilhelmina Scouting Network, the largest model and talent scam in America. ISBN-0968713335 Paperback 512 pages $29.95
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THE WORLD’S LARGEST talent and model scouting company, led by celebrity boy-band promoter Lou Pearlman, recruited over 150,000 members across America from 2000 to 2003. Based in Orlando, Florida, this enterprise operated under many names: Studio 58 Models; WHY Models; eFashionShow.com; emodel.com; Options Talent; Trans Continental Talent; Wilhelmina Scouting Network; and Web Style Network.
It charged upfront fees ranging from $395 to $995 to put an aspiring model’s picture on their website, a service purportedly used by 1000 modeling agencies seeking new talent. “You could be discovered,” their army of talent scouts pitched. “Become a model!” “You have the look!”
Extremely controversial, subject to many local news reports, it also received national attention in Jane, Newsweek, and on Dateline NBC. More than 2000 complaints were filed with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, many with signed and notarized affidavits from consumers who felt they had been scammed. An investigation, led by Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline Dowd, was opened in July 2002.
Everyone expected Attorney General Charlie Crist to act. But he didn’t. Why not? Using previously secret documents obtained through public records requests, Under Investigation takes you inside the Florida Attorney General’s Office to see how the two-year investigation unfolded, and then was ultimately shut down under suspicious circumstances.
Sample Chapter – Introduction
” AFTER AN EXTENSIVE FORENSIC REVIEW of the company as well as review of every complaint/affidavit filed with this office,” wrote Senior Assistant Attorney General John MacGregor, “we were unable to find any substantial violation of Florida law. . . . Therefore, it is recommended that the investigation be closed.”
This internal memorandum, distributed to staff by John H. MacGregor of the Economic Crimes Division in Tampa, Florida, officially completed the “investigation” of boy-band promoter Lou Pearlman’s highly controversial model scouting business, Wilhelmina Scouting Network, on behalf of Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist.
Offered as the final word on the case, it was very brief: only two paragraphs. Two years of investigation, over two thousand hours of work by the Attorney General’s Office, was summarily reduced to just fourteen lines.
MacGregor, after taking control from his predecessor, Jackie Dowd, began his own evaluation of the ongoing investigation on February 17, 2004, and ended it three-and-a-half months later on June 30, 2004.
MacGregor’s conclusion was as controversial as the company itself. Hard hit by Dateline NBC and myriad other investigative news reports, including Newsweek, Pearlman’s company was the target of over two thousand consumer complaints received by the Florida Attorney General’s Office, not to mention the hundreds filed with the Orlando Better Business Bureau. “We had nearly 900 complaints from consumers who were anticipating they’d get even some of their money back,” said Judy Pepper, president of BBB Orlando.
All of these consumers-150,000 of them-were aspiring models or actors who had been approached by one of the company’s model scouts, then induced to pay to have their pictures posted on a website with the assurance that talent agencies used the site to look for new talent.
Perhaps smart enough to anticipate the prospect of a public outcry arising from such a controversial decision, the case was quietly closed by John MacGregor. There was no press conference, no press release, nothing. Not even a letter to the consumers who had filed complaints, supported by affidavit, stating that they had lost one thousand dollars each.
For many months they had been led to believe through the media that Charlie Crist would take action. “The Attorney General’s Office isn’t saying what it will do next,” the Orlando Sentinel revealed in January 2004, “but that some action is likely within a month or two.” For them, and others, there was simply no detailed explanation or justification for the conclusion. “This is not going to be pretty,” feared Complaint Assignment Coordinator Becky Kring, a staff member at the Attorney General’s Office, anticipating public backlash following her boss’s shocking decision. “You can say that again,” echoed her colleague Koral Bowman.
A local news station briefly covered the ending of the case, but there was no interview of John MacGregor and it only superficially cited his concluding memo. WFTV did nothing to question the decision, even though MacGregor’s conclusions contradicted its own assessment. “Action 9 found many model wannabes felt misled by the company’s telephone sales tactics.”
MacGregor’s conclusion differed not only from the impressions of the Better Business Bureau, WFTV, Dateline, many news reporters, and thousands of consumers, but also the evaluations of other government agencies. It seemed, if this mysterious decision were to be understood, that public records requests would need to be filed in order to evaluate the same documents and evidence that MacGregor had used to draw his conclusions.
In the beginning, after the first public records request, it was revealed that there were a staggering number of investigation records available-twenty-two boxes! John MacGregor, the official custodian of these records, offered to have them all copied-for the mere sum of eleven thousand dollars. Later responses from Economic Crimes Tampa to numerous subsequent public records requests provided evidence which clearly does not support the conclusions of Mr. MacGregor. Even the “non-responses” were telling. There were many opportunities for him to provide documents which may have explained his actions, but, as it turns out, they simply were not there.
The case closure raised questions above and beyond John MacGregor because he was not the first Florida Attorney General’s Office attorney on the case. When the case was reassigned to him it was under very suspicious circumstances.
Jackie Dowd, then Orlando AGO Economic Crimes Chief, started the investigation of Wilhelmina Scouting Network in August 2002, back when the company was known as Options Talent. She was the lead investigator and, due to the controversy and media interest, spoke to reporters many times. She certainly did not give the impression that the state had failed to find substantial violations of law; on the contrary, she had in fact found serious illegal business practices and was actually getting ready to sue the company and its principals. Then, in February 2004, Jackie Dowd suddenly and surprisingly “resigned” without warning or explanation.
Such a decision was hardly extraordinary if taken at face value, but the timing was very suspicious. State attorneys come and go, but Dowd was nearing the end of a long, complex investigation. A resignation without first ensuring that this major case was wrapped up would be both illogical and somewhat irresponsible, barring health reasons. Dowd, however, was not known to have medical problems, nor was it the reason given for her hasty departure. The truth about the situation came out only after a suspicious reporter questioned Dowd. “It was not my idea,” said Jacqueline Dowd. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
If Dowd did not initiate her own departure, there can only be one explanation: she was asked to quit. Pushed out. It is difficult to imagine the unsolicited resignation of a professional investigator before the end of a big case, especially someone who had served the state faithfully and with great skill for many years. So who asked her to leave?
The only people, of course, who could have forced her out were those with authority over her. So who were these people? The only AG leaders with that kind of clout were her immediate boss, Mary Leontakianakos, Chief of Economic Crimes in Tallahassee, overseeing all economic crimes cases in Florida; George LeMieux, Deputy Attorney General in Tallahassee, who had the power to assign and reassign all cases in Florida; and Charlie Crist, the Attorney General himself, who obviously has authority over all AGO attorneys in Florida. One, two, or all three of these leaders must have hatched and executed the plan to fire Dowd and make it look like a resignation, effectively throwing the entire WSN case against Pearlman and his associates into confusion and jeopardy.
Regardless of why Dowd left, it was counterproductive to replace her with MacGregor if Crist was serious about taking action against WSN and its principals. Given that MacGregor himself ultimately closed down the investigation, took no action, and sought no restitution, the implied suggestion that Crist was worried that Dowd would, in some way, ruin the case, leading to the same result, makes no sense.
Jackie Dowd was more than qualified to lead and complete the Wilhelmina Scouting Network investigation; she was more qualified than anyone else in the Orlando office; and she was certainly more qualified than John MacGregor. She was the Economic Crimes Chief of the Orlando office of the Attorney General who had served the State for over a decade, not an entry-level, rookie state attorney with no leadership experience.
A public records request was filed requesting the names of cases involving MacGregor which were similar to WSN and had been reviewed by AG leaders when the decision to give him the WSN case was being made. After all, it might have occurred to LeMieux to assign an important case to a top attorney. The AG leaders, however, did not or could not provide any documents supporting their bizarre decision.
With Tallahassee silent, MacGregor himself was asked for papers from similar cases and investigations as WSN. He too, failed to provide a single example. No documentation exists to indicate that MacGregor was more qualified to replace Jackie Dowd and lead the WSN investigation by any stretch of the imagination.
So, under Crist and LeMieux’s administration, you have this incredible situation where one of the most complex multimillion-dollar consumer fraud state investigations in the entire State of Florida was deliberately given to a rookie state attorney with almost no AG experience, little consumer fraud investigation experience, no obvious restitution success, and no position of leadership, after working in real estate!
It was either one of the most inept decisions made by Crist and his office, or one of its most corrupt. All of the odd decisions convincingly call into question the entire basis of the decision by Crist or his leaders to reassign the case to MacGregor.
If shifting the case to another person was not suspicious enough, moving the case away from Orlando to Tampa certainly made no sense, either. Wilhelmina Scouting Network was based in Orlando. It had always been based in Orlando. Despite multiple name changes over three years, its location remained the same: Orlando. Why then was the WSN case moved from the Orlando Economic Crimes office to the one in Tampa? It remains a mystery that has never been explained.
Jackie Dowd has since said that there were at least three competent state attorneys in the Orlando bureau who were more qualified than MacGregor to replace her and lead the investigation; therefore there was no logical reason to move the case. Case reassignment had occurred in the past, Dowd explained, drawing from over ten years of AGO experience, but this was normally based on the special skills of an assistant attorney general. For example, if a case in, say, Tallahassee, required skills that the state attorneys there did not have, but an attorney at the Ft. Lauderdale bureau did, it could have been moved. But that was not the situation with MacGregor in Tampa.
Cases do not reassign themselves. Somebody moved the case to Tampa. Somebody asked MacGregor to take over the case. Who did it? Who is responsible? Nobody wants to accept responsibility for the transfer. Why? Because it is extremely suspicious and reeks of conspiracy and corruption.
Just as there are very few leaders in Tallahassee who had the authority to give Dowd her walking papers, there were also very few with the authority to reassign the case. One person was Mary Leontakianakos; another was George LeMieux, and then, of course, there was Charlie Crist. All the same people who could have been involved in Dowd’s dismissal.
It logically follows that if Dowd was dismissed in order to shut down the case, and her dismissal was not enough to achieve that goal without the appearance of malfeasance, the same person or group could reassign the case for the exact same reason. Since there was no logic in: 1) firing Dowd, 2) moving the case from Orlando, or, 3) giving the case to MacGregor, the only rational conclusion for this bizarre series of decisions is that the Tallahassee trio had a hidden agenda.
Due to the sheer volume of complaints (at that time over seventeen hundred), and the critical public comments made by Dowd, the only direction the case seemed to be taking was toward serious legal action. Very significantly, the public records search following Dowd’s and MacGregor’s investigations unearthed a document never previously known by the public to exist: a lawsuit drafted by the State of Florida against WSN and its principals: Lou Pearlman, Mark Tolner, and Alec Defrawy.
Jackie Dowd and her lead investigator Mike Wenger had prepared the lawsuit and, although it was still incomplete, a lot of work had been put into it. The document left no doubt about what the state attorney really thought after studying the company and its leaders for over a year.
The shift in opinion was nothing short of dramatic. One government attorney saw a huge scam with serious violations of law; her replacement saw no scam and no serious violations of law. The official position of the Attorney General’s Office had reversed by 180 degrees. How? And why? Was the change the result of an honest disagreement or a dishonest conclusion? Was one attorney deluded or another corrupt? Was there a cover-up? Was it a decision by one person or did several high-ranking officials at the AGO conspire to shut down the case while ignoring a mountain of damning evidence? Was Charlie Crist ultimately responsible for a multimillion-dollar fraud cover-up? Has he fostered a culture of corruption within his administration? Will this attitude persevere should he become the next Governor of Florida? From the following pages you can review the same evidence available to the State of Florida and draw your own conclusions.
Order the book to read more of Under Investigation: The Inside Story of the Florida Attorney General’s Investigation of Wilhelmina Scouting Network, the Largest Model and Talent Scam in America. ISBN:0968713335
Press Release for “Under Investigation” by Les Henderson 0-9687133-3-5
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