Thursday, November 15, 2018
Business

Shaky past didn't keep investors from Odessa's Craig Berkman

TAMPA — Oregon financier Craig Berkman was already battling accusations of bilking investors out of millions of dollars when he moved to the Tampa Bay area seven years ago.

The one-time candidate for Oregon governor, who has a history of securities law violations dating to 2001, lost a $28 million lawsuit in 2008 to investors who said their money was stolen. The Republican Party of Florida and GOP presidential aspirant Sen. John McCain spurned his political donations. Berkman's notoriety led Forbes to include him in its 2009 "Venture Rogues Gallery."

None of that stopped Berkman from persuading a new round of investors to plow money into a medical device company he touted. Or to dump millions into a partnership that supposedly could get them access to cheap shares of Facebook before the social media company went public last year.

On Tuesday came the denouement: Berkman, now 71, was arrested at his home in an exclusive Odessa community and charged with securities fraud, accused of peddling Facebook shares he didn't control. Prosecutors say he pocketed much of the $8 million he received from more than 50 investors, funneling $5.43 million to satisfy an earlier bankruptcy judgment against him and about $1.6 million toward personal expenses, including travel, dining and ATM withdrawals.

"Berkman blatantly capitalized on the market fervor preceding highly anticipated IPOs of Facebook and other social media companies to fleece investors whose cash flow he treated like an ATM to fund his own living expenses and pay court-ordered claims to victims of his past misdeeds," said Andrew M. Calamari, director of the Securities and Exchange Commission's New York Regional Office.

How could someone with such a checkered past sway more investors to trust him?

"He is a smooth dog," said Portland, Ore., lawyer Steve English, who successfully sued Berkman in the $28 million case. "He's one of those guys who says all the right things and has an explanation and the consummate sales skills to sell ice to Eskimos."

English said he didn't know Berkman was allegedly peddling Facebook shares he didn't control, but he wasn't surprised.

"It's vintage Craig Berkman," English said. "He always has an inside track. He always has an inside deal. He always has some kind of a better deal than everybody else has."

Al Austin, a Tampa developer and top Republican fundraiser, found out firsthand how persuasive Berkman could be.

Austin, who was introduced to the Tampa Bay newcomer as a Republican fundraiser, found him friendly, likable and seemingly knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. Austin was persuaded to invest in a medical device for which Berkman said he controlled the rights.

After the 2008 court case was publicized, however, Austin said he became worried that Berkman was "not what he represented himself to be" and repeatedly demanded his money back. Eventually, Austin said he recouped his investment in full; some of his friends weren't as fortunate. Austin said he never put money into the Facebook partnership, unlike other local investors he declined to identify.

After that, Austin said, he was cordial "but I kind of kept an arms-length relationship with him. … Once you feel like you're being taken advantage of, you don't want to hang around."

Berkman came to Tampa Bay seeking a fresh start.

It was late 2005, and investors in three Berkman-run venture capital funds were suing him for fraud and breach of contract after losing $60 million of their $75 million investment.

Irked investors contended he was moving to Florida because of its strong homestead protection laws that could hamper collecting a judgment against him. Berkman, who blamed bad timing for the losses, said he was drawn to Florida because of business and family interests. His wife grew up in Jacksonville.

In November 2005, he and his new wife, Mary Ann Farrell Karlsson, paid $3.9 million for an 8,600-square-foot Mediterranean-style house in a gated Odessa community.

At the time, Berkman said he had no desire to re-enter politics.

Beyond the medical device venture, Berkman soon honed in on the social media craze.

In December 2010, he began soliciting investors in Facebook through a private company he controlled called Ventures Trust II LLC. According to its papers, the partnership had offices in Tampa and Los Angeles.

Authorities said Berkman also solicited investors through another company called Face Off Acquisitions LLC and marketed pre-IPO shares in Linked­In, Groupon, and Zynga, as well as Facebook. All told, according to an SEC investigation, Berkman fraudulently raised at least $13.2 million by selling membership interests in limited liability companies that he controlled.

After adopting Tampa Bay as his new home, Berkman hosted gatherings and grew his social circle. But he was never embraced by Republican Party leaders in Florida after he was hammered by the 2008 ruling, according to Austin.

"I figured it was just a matter of time before he either filed for bankruptcy or got caught up in something that was inappropriate," he said.

Charged with two counts each of securities fraud and wire fraud, Berkman could face up to 80 years in prison. The SEC also is pursuing separate civil charges.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Times wires also were used in this report.

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