By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |
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William Loiry sells himself as a top disaster-recovery insider with deep ties to the White House, the Pentagon, FEMA and Congress. Over the past three decades, the 53-year-old Florida native has built and touted these connections to businesses, nonprofits and individuals interested in the opportunities for government contracts that come with war, political upheaval or disaster.
To prove the heft of his associations, the website for Loiry’s latest venture – the United States Leadership Forum – features photos of him alongside U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who led the response to the BP oil spill. Loiry also counts among his business associates President Bill Clinton and Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the couple who crashed a White House state dinner.
He is a familiar player in New Orleans, having produced conferences after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as one in April for the first anniversary of the oil spill.
Loiry said his connections let him play a hybrid role as philanthropist-entrepreneur, bringing together people who need help along with people who can provide that help, while also making money.
But a review of legal judgments against him and the company he ran for 15 years shows he may be more adept at bringing big names to the table than running his own business affairs. His events have left behind a trail of stiffed subcontractors and a mounting pile of unpaid bills. By his own admission, Loiry owes $75,000 to vendors who worked with him on the recent the New Orleans event.
“It’s a mixed report card,” Loiry said of his overall record, during an interview with The Lens and our partners at FOX 8 News. “What I’ve produced in terms of content and bringing people together is extremely strong…Obviously, what was not strong was financing.”
Since 1996, courts in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Florida have issued at least 16 judgments against him or his now defunct company, Equity International. They total more than $210,000 and include unpaid bills as large as $16,000 to a hotel in Washington. Nearly half of that debt, $100,000, is owed by Loiry personally to the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid income taxes.
Complaints about Loiry’s business practices have followed him in the three decades since he left his family’s Florida book-publishing business for a career in disaster-zone event production that has taken him from post-war Bosnia to hurricane-devastated Central America to Iraq to Afghanistan.
Most recently, he has been focusing his energies on New Orleans, where, on the first anniversary of the BP oil spill, he held the Gulf Coast Leadership Summit.
The New Orleans event was booked into the Hilton Riverside for four days and featured big-name speakers such as U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., President Obama’s oil spill claim czar Ken Feinberg, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, members of the administration’s National Oil Spill Commission and prominent plaintiffs’ lawyer Danny Becnel. The four-day, free-to-the-public event was for Loiry an impressive foray into the region’s disaster conference circuit, generating coverage of health and environmental issues related to the spill in The Lens as well as other local news media including The Times-Picayune.
“They brought in a number of important decision-makers and created a space for important conversations,” Gulf Restoration Network Deputy Director Aaron Viles said. Viles and others say that the event fostered connections that have already proven helpful as those affected by the oil spill continue to fight for compensation from BP.
“A number of people I met at the summit have called and said, ‘Should I do this, should I do that’ and I’ve worked with them,” Becnel said. He said he is offering deeply discounted legal services to nonprofits and individuals he met at the forum and a subsequent briefing Loiry held in May.
Yet some of those who worked behind the scenes to make the event happen still haven’t been paid and wonder if they ever will be. Even the Hilton is owed money for the event held in its conference rooms and ballrooms, Loiry said. His total debt for the four days of panel discussions, receptions and networking events? Roughly $75,000 split among three major vendors and a half dozen small vendors, he said in an interview.
“It’s not easy to do what we do on shoestring,” he said.
New Orleans videographer Michael Feduccia produced four videos about the forum. The earnest Nature Conservancy-like vignettes about finding solutions to help restore the Gulf can be seen on Youtube. A 31-year-old Louisiana native, Feduccia dropped his rates to a fraction of what he usually charges because he believed the forum would benefit oil-spill victims, he said. Six weeks later and still not paid at even his discount rate, Feduccia said he isn’t sure how the event helped anyone other than Loiry.
“He’s claiming to have come down to help the Gulf Coast, which is already hurting in so many ways,” Feduccia said.
Alabama activist Robin Young from the group Guardians of the Gulf is angry that Loiry has not paid a photographer with whom he is embroiled in a contract dispute. The fight has cost Young access to pictures the photographer took at a $1,000-a-ticket House of Blues fund-raiser that her organization held, with Kevin Costner, the same week as the forum. As Young tells it, Loiry asked her group “to hold tickets for him, his staff and like, three or four of his girls. In exchange, we were supposed to get professional photos,” Young said. “In the end it cost us $8,000 in tickets and we got nothing.”
Loiry says that the photographer violated the terms of his contract with her when she sold photos from the event to a separate entity after he told her payment would take 30 days, and could not be sent immediately after the event, as she requested. He bristles at the notion that the exchange between he and Young was unfair.
Young “invited myself and my leadership to a private reception and we reciprocated. She spoke at one our general sessions,” Loiry said. “It was professional reciprocity. It certainly did not cost either group anything. We are trying to bring a lot of people together and we find that some people do not want to be together, or perhaps we launched something that they wanted to do themselves.”
The goal of the April summit was to “bring together everyone who wants a better future for the U.S. Gulf Coast,” according to a website set up for the event, which drew hundreds to the Hilton. Loiry said he financed the convention with a mix of credit and donations from businesses with interest in the clean energy industry. The largest donor by far was Entergy, which wired $25,000 to Loiry through his company, Ultimate Events, LLC, based in Nevada. Though it gave no money for the event, Baton-Rouge-based public infrastructure giant Shaw Group sent one of its local directors to join a panel discussion with South Coast Solar, Entergy and Clean Terra, a clean-energy company started by retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark. Loiry estimates that more than 700 people, including activists, oil-spill victims and local leaders, participated in one of the event’s panel discussions, expos or networking receptions.
“Having been a resident (of the region, in Seaside, Fla.) and seeing the unusual amount of distress the Gulf is under with Katrina, Rita, the oil spill, I thought there should be additional focus on the Gulf coast. I went ahead and put together an annual forum and a summit to accomplish that,” he said.
Loiry describes his former company, Equity International, and the new organization that hosted the Gulf Coast Leadership Summit – the United States Leadership Forum – as public-service initiatives, and he categorizes them as “philanthropic industries” on the professional networking site LinkedIn. Although the summits hosted by the two organizations attracted support from the nonprofit sphere, Loiry’s principal business, Equity, was incorporated as a for-profit company until it was dissolved in 2010.
The events he produced weren’t “philanthropic in the technical sense,” he said. Equity International, he said, was always “a for-profit corporation, but the underlying mission was to make a difference.
He said any money his company made went toward his salary and operating costs, and he stressed that he’s lived a “meager lifestyle.” Although Equity didn’t donate actual money to nonprofits, he said his events provided a valuable platform for “thousands of humanitarian groups” and thus benefitted the public at large.
The United States Leadership Forum, which is now the umbrella organization for the Gulf Coast Leadership Summit, is in the process of being established as an IRS-approved tax-exempt organization, he said. He and Summit Executive Director Mandi Thompson said they hope the nonprofit will collect enough money from sponsored forums to be able to give some back to communities affected by the issues covered at his events.
“Just because we haven’t raised money yet doesn’t mean we won’t,” Thompson said.
This week, Loiry said he intends to leave the nonprofit’s finances to Thompson and a board of directors.
“My role will be fund-raising and talking with leaders. I am stepping back from the financial side,” he said, adding that he isn’t sure if he will even draw a salary from the organization.
Accusations of a “smoke and mirrors” enterprise
This is not the first time Loiry has had to battle the perception that his enterprise benefits his ego and reputation more than the communities it purports to serve, said Erica Orange, who worked as his communications director at Equity International for a year and half before leaving in disgust. Her beefs: murky bookkeeping, unreliable payroll and Equity International’s record of collecting money for events that did not deliver what was promised.
“I finally realized what kind of company it really was,” she said. “Smoke and mirrors.”
After she quit, Orange, now a vice president at a marketing and consulting company in New York, won a civil court judgment against Loiry and was awarded $6,500 in reimbursable business expenses and back pay. Yet even with the courts on her side, it’s unlikely she’ll ever see the money, said Michael David, a collection agent with the company Allied National who has been trying since 2007 to retrieve a 2002 $34,000 court judgment that Loiry owes a small public-relations company in northern Virginia.
“He’s what’s known in our business as judgment-proof,” David said. “Although he has judgments against him, and although he continues to operate and live large, we can’t collect. There is nothing in his name. We can’t find a bank account. We can’t find property. The companies he operates operate as virtual companies. There are no assets, no real estate, nothing but a few web pages.”
Loiry contests that claim.
“That is complete nonsense,” he said. Equity “was an appropriately registered corporation in existence from 1995 through 2010. I don’t know what he is talking about.”
He conceded, though, that his company’s weak financial situation may make it difficult to collect such judgments.
As for why he has not paid David’s client, Bremmer and Goris Communications, he says the court judgment should have been $10,000, not $34,000. The lower figure, he contends, is the actual value of the work performed.
“I plan to pursue them for misleading the courts,” he said.
From the Balkans to BP
Over the past three decades, Loiry has made a name and a living selling himself as an insider on whatever disaster or geopolitical threat seemed to be generating anxiety – and spending – in Washington. As the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was drawing to a close, Loiry published a guide to business between the two superpowers. After several years leading business-training programs for Russian oil and bank executives and writing a follow-up guide to doing business in the former Soviet Union, he founded Equity International and, trading on newfound connections in the international development and natural gas industries, he organized his first conference. Held in 1996, the conference focused on the reconstruction of post-war Bosnia.
“I published the first guide to doing business in the former Soviet Union and then a guide to doing business in Eastern Europe,” he said. “That gave me a kind of calling card and all kinds of doors were opened.”
By the late 1990s, Loiry moved his area of focus from the Balkans to the Middle East, hosting, in 1998, what he calls “the first conference on the threat of Osama Bin Laden to American companies overseas.”
Loiry’s business picked up after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. For the next decade, he traveled between Washington, Iraq and Afghanistan, hosting forums on reconstruction with sponsors that included contracting giants Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown, Root.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Loiry saw opportunity in the Gulf Coast. Within a month of the storm, with Halliburton donating $5,000 to cover event costs, he hosted his first Katrina Reconstruction Summit for contractors in Washington.
In 2006, Loiry organized a reconstruction conference at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner. Featured speakers were U.S. Sen. Landrieu, then-mayor Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco, who was midway through her term as governor. Unlike the forums for contractors in Washington, where people paid to attend, the New Orleans event was free and open to the public, though advertised heavily to contractors looking for business opportunities in the region. Loiry, then a member of the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative, promoted the Katrina reconstruction events through the exclusive — membership is $20,000 a year and invites in are scarce — network of international movers and shakers.
“The summits happened before the water was potable in New Orleans,” said Donna Atkinson, a former staffer in the administration of former Mayor Ray Nagin. She attended the Kenner event while working as an economic-development official in St. Charles Parish. “I learned a lot, and I brought back a lot of those lessons when I returned to New Orleans.”
The pitches to these events have varied, but the draw is always the same: guaranteed access to powerful government and industry decision-makers. The primary audience? Businesses and nonprofits with an interest in procuring government contracts. Attendees pay fees that slide in scale from $95, for a nonprofit to register for a one-day forum, to $250 for a business to register for the same event, or $1,000 for a table at a larger forum and on up to $100,000 for a full title sponsorship, according to marketing materials for past conferences.
New Hampshire telecommunications executive Lou Altman attended several successful Loiry events before paying his final $1,000 registration fee for a conference on Homeland Security-related opportunities that was cancelled at the last minute. Rather than refund the fee, he said Loiry offered free registration for the next conference. Altman declined the offer – and that’s when the trouble began.
“I sent emails to him, letters to him. His father was sick and died. His mother was sick and died. That was his excuse,” Altman, CEO of GlobaFone Satellite Communications, said. “I wrote about my experience on a blog and he asked me to take down the accusations. He said he wouldn’t pay the money until I removed the mean things I said about him. They weren’t mean; they were true. I refused to take them down and just gave up on the money.
“The conferences he puts on are very good. He uses his connections to get good people there. The problem is when the conferences don’t happen as planned,” Altman added.
Loiry admits that his refusal to refund Altman’s money was less than professional.
“It’s a little childish on my part to be irritated by his comments,” he conceded. “But there is always the problem, where do you take [the money] from and when; but if we were flush with funds, yes we would pay.
Reflecting on his situation later, he said, “I guess my mind is my biggest asset.”
A review of legal judgments against Loiry or his now-defunct Equity International shows that Altman is not the only person to have been refused a refund for a cancelled event.
Christine Slager runs a small alternative-fuel company in Florida. Loiry’s company reached out to the company, Wise Gas Inc., about sponsoring a large alternative fuels trade show in 2008. After negotiating the sponsorship down from $11,000 to $4,000, Slager signed up.
“We wired the money to him, then four or five days before the event, we got a cryptic email saying it was cancelled,” Slager said. “We asked for our money back and got months worth of emails saying that he is sick, his father was sick. The money never came.”
Slager eventually put up a blog about her experience with Loiry and imploring others to share theirs. Dozens of people wrote in to report that they believed they had been scammed by Loiry, she said.
“The blog got pretty popular and he got really tired of having his reputation ruined,” Slager said.
Shortly after filing a libel suit that he later withdrew before a judge could reach a decision, he paid her back and she took down the blog.
Lana Orloff, a well-connected personal stylist and fashion editor for Washington Life magazine, met Loiry in 2006. The occasion was a glitzy fund-raiser for tsunami victims sponsored by the jewelry company Cartier. The two exchanged business cards that night.
With personal and professional ties to Washington’s moneyed lobbyists, government contractors and defense industry insiders, Orloff didn’t think much of the gregarious businessman until he called and asked her to promote one of his post-Katrina reconstruction summits. She couldn’t do it that time, but when he called back a few years later and asked her to help him organize a reception and conference at Washington’s prestigious Willard InterContinental Hotel during the week of the Obama inauguration, she said yes, agreeing to promote events through Washington Life magazine.
Sold in promotional materials as an elite affair that would bring together “Obama Administration officials, Members of Congress, diplomats, and Washington’s power elite,” corporate sponsorships went for up to $100,000. By all accounts, the event fell short of expectations with far fewer attendees and sponsors than expected. The only sponsor, in fact, other than one investor who later disavowed Loiry was the Salahis’s Oasis Winery, which donated $25,000 of Shiraz blend, a publicist for the winery wrote in an email to The Lens.
The couple, which starred in the reality TV show, “The Real Housewives of DC,” also attended the event, the publicist, Jennifer William said. Both Tareq Salahi and Loiry confirm the Salahis are professionally friendly with Loiry. But even with that patina of celebrity, the event was a bust, investor Chet Watson said.
“The agreement was that we would make money from the conference or follow-up conferences. I paid for the hotel, the caterings, everything. No other sponsors ever showed up except for the wine sponsor,” said Watson, a California-based energy consultant who invested upwards of $75,000 in the event. “When money came in and was cleared. He took all of it and didn’t give me any.”
Watson has not sued Loiry because their agreements were informal and he fears an extended court battle would only add to his losses.
“I’m chasing him on his integrity,” Watson said.
Loiry blames Orloff and Watson for failing to get the media attention needed to bring in deep-pocketed sponsorships, while they say he oversold his connections, misrepresented the resources he would bring to bear. When the event failed, Loiry made up an alternate version of events, they say.
“The conference had, like, 10 people, but he wrote everywhere it was so successful and it was so great,” said Orloff, who, in 2009, won a $5,000 judgment for back pay from Loiry in a Virginia Small Claims Court.
“Loiry waits for big things to happen then tries to throw events,” Orloff said. “He hires people to do the work, gets money from sponsors, gets money from the tickets and then doesn’t pay the people who did the work. Sometimes he doesn’t even have the event.”
New Orleans event planner Bec Hunter has a trove of text messages from Thompson and Loiry saved on her black smartphone.
“He kept just saying, ‘Once I get your bank account number I can drop the money right into your account,’ and then he stopped returning my calls. Now he says he doesn’t owe me at all,” said Hunter, a freelance event management consultant who said Loiry owes her $2,000 for three weeks of work in which she hunted down potential sponsors and looked for office space. “Now it seems like this is just how he operates.”
Hunter got her first insight into Loiry’s business practices during a visit to a leasing agent at Place St. Charles in the Central Business District. The agent told her that Loiry already owed for a one-year lease he had signed right after the BP oil spill, used only a few times and never paid for.
“She said, ‘If we could just get this settled up on that other lease we would be happy to move on,’ ” Hunter recalled. “I was embarrassed, but I needed the work so I kept the job even though it felt a little weird.”
Loiry does not deny that he signed a lease he never fulfilled, but he says the circumstances were different than those recollected by the real estate agent. In his version of the story, the lease was signed when he thought he would be able to hold a first Gulf Coast Summit immediately after the spill. He cancelled shortly thereafter when he realized that he needed more time to put a conference together.
“We cancelled the lease before we even used the space or moved in,” he said. As for Hunter, he says she did not perform according to contract and is not entitled to payment. “We are quite angry about what has happened with her and will be going to litigation,” he said.
The anger is not slowing Loiry down. Last week, his organization was due to hold a briefing in Pensacola on financing for coastal restoration work. Registering for the May 31 event cost $95 for nonprofits and $250 for a business. The briefing was cancelled a few days before it was supposed to happen, after 25 people registered, Loiry said.
“We have offered to translate all the registrations to the next event and 95 percent of registrants have agreed to that,” Loiry said.
He attributed the cancellation to deaths in his family.