Unmasking Lou Pearlman

The promoter who loved the limelight has retreated to the shadows. Left in the dark are the investors.

By HELEN HUNTLEY, Times Personal Finance Editor
Published June 3, 2007

Music producer Lou Pearlman celebrates his 53rd birthday this month, but he may not throw much of a party. The one-time king of boy bands waits in self-imposed foreign exile for word on whether he'll be indicted for running one of the largest investment frauds in Florida history.

Friends and relatives he betrayed still shake their heads in disgust and astonishment. They no longer hear from the man who once greeted them with hugs, remembered their birthdays and faithfully returned their calls no matter where he was on the globe. Instead, they file their claims in bankruptcy court with little hope of any significant recovery.

"He was the best salesman I've ever known," said David Mathis, a former Chicago freight company owner Pearlman took for $2.8-million. "He told us he had 412 airplanes, the company had a value of $1.8-billion and the IPO was coming out at $17.50 a share. It was totally convincing."

Mathis said Pearlman treated him to lunch with Britney Spears, introduced him to Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan and took him for a ride on the Budweiser blimp.

"He could have sold anything," he said.

In fact, Pearlman sold lots of things. He sold lemonade as an 8-year-old and newspapers as a 10-year-old in the Flushing, N.Y. neighborhood where he grew up. The son of a dry cleaner, Pearlman imagined his future as an entrepreneur and the older he got, the bigger he dreamed. While still at Queens College, he put together a business plan for a helicopter commuter service. Next came a charter airline and aircraft leasing business, then a blimp advertising business.

But "Big Poppa" as he liked to be known, was always more of a promoter than a businessman.

"I knew he was smoke and mirrors right from the start, but the job was fun," said Jay Harris, who worked on blimp crews for Airship International. "Payroll and per diem were often late. He was very close to going under just prior to the Backstreet Boys. They saved him."

The blimps and planes brought Pearlman to Orlando, where he encountered the New Kids on the Block on one of his charter flights - and decided he could get rich by replicating their success. He had played in bands growing up and admired the career of first cousin Art Garfunkel - as in Simon and Garfunkel - but Pearlman had something much bigger in mind.

As his aviation businesses failed, he reinvented himself as an entertainment mastermind. He didn't discover bands; he made them up from scratch, auditioning prospects to put together the right sound and a carefully calculated mix of clean-cut teen heartthrobs.

And for a time, he was wildly successful. The Backstreet Boys and *NSync sold 58-million records in the United States and millions more in Europe. Billboard says *NSync's album No Strings Attached still holds the record for sales in one week at 2.4-million copies, a feat accomplished in 2000.

However, none of Pearlman's other groups rose to similar stardom. As the boy band sound began fading in popularity, Pearlman created one new group after another and branched out into movies and TV shows, sometimes playing himself.

"Anybody that came in with an idea, he'd throw money at it," said Jerry McHale, the receiver the state placed in charge of Pearlman's crumbling empire last February. "I have the distinct impression there was not a businessman in that whole building."

As his empire grew, Pearlman created corporations by the dozen, but didn't bother with niceties like standard accounting. McHale said Pearlman freely transferred money from one company to another and paid bills without regard to which company owed the money.

A former accounting student at Queens College, Pearlman used phony financial statements from a nonexistent accounting firm to convince bankers and potential investors that he and his main company, Trans Continental Airlines, were prospering. He owes more than $150-million to lenders, some of whom hold worthless Trans Continental stock as collateral.

Pearlman earned a reputation as a Svengali by easily outwitting the naive teenagers in his bands, their star-struck parents and many of those who worked for him.

"They spent four years of their lives, and they got nothing for it," said Merrily Goodell, whose two sons were in Take 5, a Pearlman band that had hits in Europe. She said she and her husband even kicked in $250,000 for expenses for which they were never reimbursed.

The Backstreet Boys and *NSync sued Pearlman, claiming they had been cheated. Both settled, paying Pearlman to get out of their contracts.

"Between the Backstreet Boys and *NSync, we recovered close to $60-million for him," said Cheney Mason, one of the Orlando lawyers who represented him on contingency. Pearlman never paid the bill and the court judgment the lawyers got against him has grown to about $19-million, Cheney said.

"Every lawyer he's had since then, he has stiffed by large numbers," he said.

Now Pearlman can't find a lawyer in Orlando to represent him, according to a recent bankruptcy court filing purporting to be from him.

The portly Pearlman loved the limelight, even recording a short video about his lifestyle, "Lou Pearlman Living Large," which he often popped into the VCR in his opulent office when investors visited. It features a Lou-guided tour of his Mediterranean mansion outside Orlando in suburban Windemere, with boats and jet skis docked out back on Lake Butler. He shows off his fleet of luxury cars and diamond-studded Rolex watch with matching ring and cuff links that he claims are worth $425,000.

Pearlman, who never married and didn't drink, loved entertaining lavishly at his home, restaurants and even a skybox at Raymond James Stadium. He contributed heavily to Republican politicians and bought a small interest in the Orlando Predators arena football team. He dispensed business advice in a 2003 book, Bands, Brands & Bills: My Top 10 Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum. Many investors have autographed copies.

Although Pearlman bragged of having a doctorate in business, he didn't often mention that it came from online Century University, which lacks recognized accreditation.

He made a show of his connections to Orlando's Jewish community. The sanctuary at Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation bears the Hebrew name Ohalei Rivka of Pearlman's late mother in recognition of his financial support. Rabbi Mark Ankcorn said Pearlman's last major contribution was about 10 years ago and said he was not aware that the congregation newsletter still listed Pearlman as an honorary director.

More recently, Pearlman pledged $250,000 for a "Louis J. Pearlman Aquatic Center" at a new Jewish Community Center. The Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando says it is looking for other donors, because the pledge apparently has little chance of being honored.

Pearlman's purchase of the Church Street Station complex in downtown Orlando in 2003 brought him praise and $1.5-million in an economic development loan from the city.

"It was Lou Pearlman who jump started all the downtown development, said Orlando City Commissioner Daisy Lynum, who gave Pearlman a key to the city three years ago and still thinks he deserves it.

But what propped up Pearlman's businesses and ultimately brought his downfall was the sale of worthless stock and bogus savings accounts to the tune of more than $300-million.

He owes money to about 1,800 investors, primarily from Florida and New York, including cousins and childhood friends. Nearly 800 are from the Tampa Bay area, out a collective $78-million. Some knew Pearlman personally, while others invested through his network of agents.

The investments date to the 1980s. Some people bought stock, expecting to get in on a forthcoming stock offering and earn hefty dividends in the meantime. However, most of Pearlman's investors thought they were getting an FDIC-insured high-yield savings account that would be a safe place for their retirement savings. A fake insurance certificate purportedly from Lloyd's of London and a glowing Dun & Bradstreet report based on false financials helped convince them of its safety. And as long as enough new money came in to pay off old investors, everything appeared to be fine.

But last fall Trans Continental employees and a few investors began realizing something was terribly wrong. It became more and more difficult for investors to withdraw money. Then in October, Frank Vasquez, one of the company's top executives, died of carbon monoxide poisoning sitting in his Porsche in his closed garage, an apparent suicide.

By December, employees were destroying records and carting off office furniture, flat screen TVs and artwork.

Soon after, Pearlman gave up trying to placate investors and flew off to Europe, leaving his companies in shambles and his bank accounts empty. The state stepped in Feb. 1, and creditors forced Pearlman and some of his companies into bankruptcy. The FBI, the IRS and other agencies seized his files and are investigating. His whereabouts are unknown, and the Times was not able to reach him.

McHale, who has worked on many investment fraud cases, said Pearlman's is strikingly different from the others in just one way: "I generally don't see that many family and friends taken," he said. "Usually it's just the outsiders."

Helen Huntley can be reached at hhuntley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8230. Read more about the Lou Pearlman saga at blogs.tampabay.com/money (click on "Trans Continental News").

Damage done

What brought Lou Pearlman's downfall was the sale of worthless stock and bogus savings accounts to the tune of more than $300-million.

He owes money to about 1,800 investors, primarily from Florida and New York, including cousins and childhood friends. Nearly 800 are from the Tampa Bay area, out a collective $78-million.

Other Pearlman ventures

In addition to his investment schemes, Lou Pearlman was involved in many other businesses:

Aviation: Started in the helicopter business, got into blimps (Airship International, Entertainment International), then charter planes (Trans Continental Airlines).

Music production: Put together and developed the careers of boy bands, including Backstreet Boys, *NSync, O-Town, Natural, C-Note, Take 5, US5. Linked to artists such as Britney Spears, Creed, Matchbox 20, Alicia Keys, Kenny Rogers and K.C. & the Sunshine Band through recording studio (Trans Continental Studios) and record company (Trans Continental Records).

Movies: Produced Longshot, Popstar, Somewhere, Motocross kids, Red Riding Hood, Inside Monkey Zetterland.

TV: Produced Big in America and played himself in Sex 'n' Pop and Making the Band.

Stage: Chippendales male revue.

Restaurants: interests in NYPD Pizza, Pearl Steakhouse.

Real estate: Church Street Station retail, office and entertainment complex in downtown Orlando, condos in New York, Orlando, Las Vegas.

Talent scouting: Fashion Rock/Talent Rock sponsor of talent search events and before that, Wilhelmina Scouting Network, which was the subject of an extensive investigation by the state attorney general's office, but led to no charges.

Miscellaneous: jewelry store, travel agency

Pearlman companies

While 58 more business names are thought to be Pearlman's, the following have been verified as his:

AC Productions LLC - Airship Enterprises Inc. - American Builders & Developers Inc. - American Realty & Investments Inc. - Backstreet Boys Productions Inc. - Backstreet Boys Inc. - Baeza Jewelers LLC - Blimp Port USA Inc. - C-5 Productions Inc. - Carlson Sterling Inc. - Champagne Holidays Inc. - Church Street Station Development Company LLC - Church Street Station Events LLC - Church Street Station of Orlando Inc. - Clean Systems Technology Group LTD. Corporation - Downtown Exchange Lounge LLC - Eurofitness LLC - Fashion Rock Inc. - Fashion Rock LLC - Galante Productions LLC - IV King Corporation - JK Productions LLC - JRC Entertainment LLC - Knights of the Round Table LLC - L.F.O. Productions Inc. - LJP Productions LLC - Locate- yourmate - Louis J. Pearlman Enterprises Inc. - Louis J. Pearlman Enterprises LLC - LP Productions LLC - Lyte Funkie Ones Inc. - Making the Hit Inc. - Making the Hit LLC - O Town Records Inc. - On Stage Productions Inc. - Pearl Beach Properties Inc. - Pearl Pictures Inc. - Pearlcam Productions Inc. - Planet Vacations Inc. - PLJ Inc. - Rock Management LLC - Rocks Timepieces Inc. - Rocks Timepieces LLC - Shape CD Inc. - TC/I-4 A Joint Venture - TC Leasing Inc. - Trans Continental Airlines Inc. - Trans Continental Airlines LLC - Trans Continental Aviation Inc. - Trans Continental Classics Inc. - Trans Continental Companies Inc. - Trans Continental Entertainment Group Inc. - Trans Continental Entertainment Inc. - Trans Continental Foods Inc. - Trans Continental Leasing Inc. - Trans Continental Management Inc. - Trans Continental Merchandising Inc. - Trans Continental Pictures Inc., - Trans Continental Productions Inc. - Trans Continental Publishing Inc. - Trans Continental Records Inc. - Trans Continental Studios Inc. - Trans Continental Talent Inc. - Trans Continental Television Productions Inc. - Trans Continental Inc. - Transcontinental Entertainment Inc. - US 5 Productions LLC - Web Style Network - Wilhelmina Scouting Network - Zeppelin's Restaurant Inc.

Pearlman on business

Quotes from his 2003 book published by McGraw-Hill:

"You dream up things that fascinate you and then chase after them. How cool is that?"

"Money isn't the prize for entrepreneurs, it's just a great way to keep score."

"For me it's all about creating things and then watching people enjoy them or put them to good use. That's why it was such a thrill for me, a real high point in my life, to be at the Super Bowl in Tampa and see that millions and millions of people were enjoying things that I'd had a hand in creating."

"What you are really trying to build is a life that you can look back on and feel good about."

What will be auctioned off

An auction of property Lou Pearlman left behind will be at 11 a.m. June 12 at Church Street Station in Orlando and online through bidspotter.com. For more information, contact Stampler Auctions (stamplerauctions.com) toll-free at 1-800-330-2437.