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Robert Trigaux

In lawsuits, former PBS&J executives allege range of financial grievances

Wake up and good morning. PBSJ Corp. was a big, high-profile engineering and construction firm in Tampa Bay that ran into trouble and found itself sold for $280 million about a year ago. It now operates under the name of its new owner, U.K.-based WS Atkins. Read more of that deal here.

As is too often the case, the sale of a company does not necessarily keep its name and former executives out of the spotlight.

johnzumwaltpbsj-150x150.jpgFormer PBSJ CEO John Zumwalt (left) and Martha Zumwalt recently filed suit in Hillsborough County claiming they are the victim of a Ponzi schemer named Miland Bharvirkar who convinced them to invest in his business to build high-tech gaming kiosks in retail locations. The Zumwalts say they were introduced to Bharvirkar as... wait for it... a fellow congregant at their church.

(WE INTERRUPT this blog posting to repeat, again, that there are far, far too many tales of people who say they got flimflammed by someone they met at church, when their investing guard is down. STOP doing business via church connections! WE now return you to the current tale of woe...)

According to the Zumwalt suit, Bharvirkar convinced them over a series of meetings and even a presentation made at the Zumwalt home to invest about $300,000 in a Lutz company called Bridge LBN that would operate games intended to advance "Christian values" and generate first-year sales of nearly $10 million. Instead of installing game kiosks (starting, allegedly, in certain Westfield malls around Tampa Bay), however, the lawsuit alleges Bharvirkar used most of investor money to sustain a lavish personal lifestyle. The Zumwalt suit, filed in April, claims they are victims of fraud, theft and racketeering. Bharvirkar could not be reached for comment.

John Zumwalt resigned in 2010 from PBSJ. The company, before its sales to WS Atkins, was  found to have made illegal campaign contributions as a government contractor to political candidates. Curiously, Zumwalt currently is chairman-elect of Florida TaxWatch, a watchdog organization on Florida taxes.

Meanwhile, another former PBSJ executive has recently taken his grievances to court. Tampa's Walid Hatoum filed suit in March saying he was named president of PBSJ International (a title previously held by Zumwalt) in 2009 only to be terminated less than a year later. The suit does not contest the termination but says PBSJ failed to honor a contract that was meant to indemnify him "expense, costs or liabilities incurred as a result of his employment." Several months before Hatoum left, PBSJ began an investigation of potentially illegal overseas activities in the international division.

A federal investigation in 2010 concluded PBS&J did engage in illegal campaign contributions but the federal statute of limitations ran out before any punishment could be assessed on the company. Read more here.

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times



[Last modified: Monday, May 14, 2012 8:22am]


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