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A multilevel scheme, in down-to-earth Quincy

QUINCY — The faithful come to ChristTown Community Church every Wednesday morning to lift up the needs of this town.

Good schools, good teachers, good jobs.

Especially good jobs.

Nearly half the work force drives half an hour to jobs in Tallahassee, and the biggest private employer is a mushroom farm. A third of the storefronts around Quincy's town square are government offices or stand vacant.

"It's a great little town, but it's just poverty-stricken," ChristTown Community pastor Bob Wells said. "To be 25 miles from the capital, it's quite a culture shock to see."

This summer, it seemed Quincy's prayers were answered. People began to talk about a local company, AdSurfDaily, and its founder, Andy Bowdoin (pronounced Bowden, like the football coach). It was growing fast and hiring locals.

"It's the best thing that has happened to me since Grandma's apple pie," said Foriest McNiel, 47, who went from making $7.50 an hour as a substitute teacher to $12 an hour as a customer service rep. "It was a godsend to a lot of us."

Then, in August, federal agents raided AdSurfDaily and froze company accounts holding $93.5-million. Officials accused the company of running a huge Ponzi scheme, one of the biggest frauds they can recall in Florida.

A federal grand jury has subpoenaed AdSurfDaily records in a possible criminal wire fraud investigation. Company attorneys say in court pleadings prosecutors told them Bowdoin, 73, will be indicted.

Contacted by the Times, Bowdoin generally declined to discuss the case, the company or himself. He did say he was working with authorities so AdSurfDaily could resume business.

"They just haven't understood how our program worked," he said.

Investors burned by Bowdoin in Alabama say they understand him perfectly — now.

Ask Betty Yancey what she would tell someone thinking about trusting money to Bowdoin, and she offers one word of advice.

"Run."

• • •

Quincy was once a wealthy place, thanks to caffeine and nicotine.

Nearly a century ago, a shrewd local banker advised his clients to buy Coca-Cola stock, and many did. Outside of town, farmers raised tobacco for cigar factories in Ybor City.

But over the years the Coca-Cola wealth dissipated as it passed from generation to generation. The tobacco farms died off. In 1982, Wal-Mart opened its first store in Florida in Quincy. The downtown dried up.

Quincy needed a new stimulant. Along came AdSurfDaily.

At first, Pastor Wells saw more cars on Jefferson Street and more people on the sidewalk.

"We noticed that before we ever knew anything about Ad Surf," he said. "It just seemed like there was more people and more life."

At the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce, executive director David Gardner heard of visitors from all over the world checking into motels out by Interstate 10.

Both investigated and found themselves at a white wood-frame house with three rocking chairs on the front porch.

It once was Faye's Florist. Now it was AdSurfDaily. In charge was Bowdoin, Faye's folksy and soft-spoken husband. And tens of millions of dollars were coming in the door.

"It's so amazing how all this happened right here," Gardner says. "There was a tremendous buzz in the community: 'What the heck was going on?' "

The talk didn't stop at the city limits. On the Web and at huge rallies, AdSurfDaily attracted about 100,000 customers who authorities say put more than $100-million into the company.

Here's how AdSurfDaily worked: Members could pay to put their Web pages into a rotation of sites viewed by other members. The cost: $1 per view.

Members also could earn cash rebates by viewing up to 24 other members' Web sites for 15 seconds each every day. And they could earn commissions for bringing in new members.

The company says it explicitly told members it was not an investment, nor did it promise any rate of return.

But the company's marketing had a different tone. In a video, according to court records, Bowdoin described AdSurfDaily as an "income-earning opportunity." The company called its ad-surfing program the "Cash Generator." And it had a Spanish Web site called La Fuente de Dinero (The Fountain of Money).

Federal investigators say AdSurfDaily led people to believe they could earn 125 percent of their membership fees as rebates, plus commissions for referrals.

Early members were paid with money from later ones, authorities said, and the scheme was doomed to collapse once the supply of new investors was exhausted.

Bowdoin incorporated AdSurfDaily in 2006. This year a series of huge rallies in Miami, Las Vegas, Chicago and Tampa fueled the company's explosive growth.

The Tampa rally took place in June at the Marriott Waterside.

It began with a Thursday night social. Wearing a polo shirt and jeans, Bowdoin mingled as members noshed on fresh fruit, cake, pastry, cheese and coffee.

That in itself was remarkable, said AdSurfDaily member Charmaine Tincher, a veteran of many seminars during her 18 years in home-based businesses.

"Most of the time when you're in any kind of business like that, the only time you see the corporate people is when they're up on stage," said Tincher, 55, of Port Charlotte.

What followed, she said, were half-day programs on Friday and Saturday where Bowdoin and others shared tips on marketing, planning, setting goals and being disciplined.

Tincher said the sales pitch was not high-pressure.

But a lot of selling took place.

The Tampa rally cost $237,482 to stage, according to court records, and rang up $29.1-million in sales.

That was not unusual.

The Miami rally drew 2,530 registrations and $39.2-million in sales. The Chicago rally brought in 4,100 people and more than $27.4-million.

"My goal is to make 100,000 millionaires in the next three years," Bowdoin told a cheering crowd in an online video from the Las Vegas rally.

• • •

His company booming, Bowdoin went shopping.

In July, AdSurfDaily paid $830,000 for the tallest building in downtown Quincy, the four-story Masonic temple.

"Andy comes across as being a really nice guy," Gardner said. "He really did want to make a commitment to this community with regard to the music theater and the art center."

Using AdSurfDaily funds, authorities say, Bowdoin also purchased a $695,000 waterfront home on Lake Talquin south of Quincy, plus a condominium in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

And investigators say Bowdoin used more company funds to buy $51,000 worth of jewelry in a single day.

That's more than what Bowdoin still owes investors on a previous business venture that went sour.

In Alabama, where he was successfully prosecuted in the mid 1990s, Bowdoin owes investors more than $46,000 in court-ordered restitution, according to court records.

Bowdoin told the Times he ran into trouble in Alabama because his company, Mobile International, sought to raise $1-million through a stock issue, and someone was improperly paid a commission to sell the stock.

"That nullified the registrations that our attorney had done with the state of Alabama," he said.

Prosecutors and investors paint a different picture.

The phone system was not delivered as promised, officials said, nor did the company tell new investors it was being sued by earlier investors. Plus it used money from its later backers to pay off the earlier claims. ("That was never the case," Bowdoin told the Times.)

Glen and Betty Yancey said they and their four sons invested a total of $454,000 in Mobile International and lost it all.

"We ended up selling a family farm" to invest, said Mrs. Yancey, 78, a retired gym teacher. "This was just too good to be true."

But Mobile International used investors' money to lease "lavish" offices in Atlanta, give Bowdoin and four other company executives large salaries, bonuses and generous expense accounts, as well as get a Mercedes and a Lincoln Continental as company cars, according to a lawsuit the Yanceys filed.

Bowdoin was charged with 89 counts of securities violations in four counties. After his arrest, he told authorities he had been borrowing from friends to get by.

To settle the cases, Bowdoin pleaded guilty to three counts, entered a pretrial diversion program in one county, was placed on five years' probation in a second and agreed to pay a total of $95,000 in restitution. (Other co-defendants also agreed to pay restitution.) He also was banned from selling securities in Alabama.

Bowdoin's latest restitution check arrived at the Wilcox County courthouse on Aug. 27.

It was for $100.

• • •

In an online video, Bowdoin has portrayed himself as a successful entrepreneur with a 45-year career in sales.

He does not mention his trouble in Alabama. At the Miami rally, a speaker said the only blemish on Bowdoin's record was a speeding ticket, according to court records.

That's not the only fact the company withheld, officials say.

Promoters have boasted President Bush gave Bowdoin a "Medal of Distinction" in recognition of his business success. In fact, investigators said, the National Republican Congressional Committee gave him the award after he made a substantial contribution to the GOP.

In the video, Bowdoin describes building up companies in dry-cleaning, pay phones, cellular telephones and global-satellite positioning technology.

JoAnn Kennedy said she heard about some of those ventures, plus a stint Bowdoin served as mayor in his hometown of Perry, during their marriage from 1985 to 1996.

While she held down a job as chief clerk for the Norfolk Southern Railroad, he pursued "all kinds of multilevel-type things."

"He was going from one thing to another," said Kennedy, 69, now retired. "One of them was vitamins. ... All of them were failures as far as I was concerned."

When the marriage ended — she left him after his arrest in Alabama — he owed her money, according to Georgia court records. She said he used savings she brought into the marriage for one of his businesses, not the home they planned to buy, and lost it.

Kennedy got a judgment for the money in the divorce but he has not paid. With interest, she said, he owes her $162,189.

Federal prosecutors say Bowdoin appears to have earned no significant income from "legal employment" in the 20 years before starting AdSurfDaily.

One of his neighbors in Quincy said Bowdoin borrowed $3,000 from him for a GPS company selling trackers for vehicles, office equipment, even children.

Retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Bill Allen, 85, said Bowdoin talked about the company's potential to generate tens of millions of dollars. But after a few months, Allen decided he wanted his $3,000 back.

He got it, but it took a while. When he first asked, Bowdoin told him the company wasn't doing as well as expected. So Allen turned up the pressure. He said he borrowed the $3,000, and his creditor was demanding the money.

"You think maybe I could call him and tell him what the problem is?" Bowdoin asked.

Asked about Allen's account, Bowdoin declined to comment.

• • •

After the raid by the Secret Service, many AdSurfDaily members howled in outrage.

Some described getting healthy rebates, and many said the company brought new customers to their Web sites. The only stealing, they said, was done by the government.

More than 3,000 sent in e-mails of support. The testimonials came from all over: Florida, Hawaii, Ontario, Connecticut, Wisconsin, North Carolina.

In Quincy, Mayor Andy Gay feels sorry for the 80 employees who lost their jobs. But if the company was doing something illegal, he said, "I'm glad they got caught."

"I can tell you what," says Gay, who met with Bowdoin after hearing the company might leave town. "Before I stick my neck out there again, I'll investigate real good who's doing business in Quincy."

Pastor Bob Wells hopes to see AdSurfDaily resume business, and not just because it brought jobs to town.

Two weeks before the raid, Wells and his wife cashed in her retirement fund and put the proceeds in AdSurfDaily.

Bowdoin seemed like a down-to-earth straight-shooter.

"I'm a pretty good discerner of people just from being where I've been," said Wells, who runs a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

Since the raid, Wells has spoken to Faye Bowdoin, who has roots in Quincy and is better-known around town than her husband. She told him she wakes up at night thinking about all the people who have been hurt.

Now AdSurfDaily is waiting to hear whether a federal judge will let it resume business under the supervision of a court-approved monitor. In its request, the company offered this concession: Andy Bowdoin would not be an employee, officer or director of the company.

In the meantime, Wells said the Wednesday prayer circle has added to its list of community concerns.

It has begun praying for Faye and Andy Bowdoin.

Times researcher John Martin and online business editor Becky Bowers contributed to this report.

How AdSurfDaily worked

According to the company

• Members buy advertisements on the Internet for $1 for each guaranteed hit. Each ad puts a member's Web site into a rotation of ads viewed by other members. The page advertised could be anything from a corporate Web site to a MySpace page.

• Members earned rebates by taking up to six minutes a day to view other members' pages online. If they viewed the required number of pages, they could receive daily payouts equal to 1 percent of the amount they put in until they received 125 percent of the initial purchase price. But those payouts were contingent on revenue. If no revenue came in on a given day, no rebate would be paid.

• Members also could earn commissions by referring new members to the company.

According to the government

• This business was about investing, not advertising.

• Virtually the only source of revenue was from members' fees.

• Once the supply of members was exhausted, the business would collapse. Thus, it was a Ponzi scheme, and the last members in would lose their money.

A multilevel scheme, in down-to-earth Quincy 10/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 7:44pm]

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