A globe-trotting entrepreneur from New Zealand who's been selling lofty business ideas for the last 20 years has left some Winnipeggers wondering if they will ever see their investments again.
Simon Romana, 57, who also goes by the first name Hai, is known to some in Winnipeg as a Maori artist who holds a PhD in physics. To others, he's a fast-talking businessman who makes promises that never materialize.
It's not just Winnipeggers who feel they have been short-changed. The list of people affected by Romana includes a former mayor of Washington, D.C , a major manufacturing company, some prominent Mohawk businessmen in Quebec and more than 240 other investors.
Over the last 15 years, Romana has travelled around the world from bases in Winnipeg and New Zealand, leaving investors and unsuspecting partners in the lurch for large sums of money.
Investors in Winnipeg had no idea he had a criminal record of assault and fraud and had fled New Zealand in 2011 after leaving more than 200 investors out their investments.
Romana approached Katherine Medland of Winnipeg and her partner, Peter Wessner, just over a year ago about Hai Power International.
Medland says Romana told her he invented a "gasifier," an engine that converts solid waste from landfills into usable energy on a large scale.
"I found it to be a very good idea," she told CBC News. "I wanted some way to generate income, and the numbers that Simon gave me with this engine were huge."
'I feel so naive'
Romana told her he had a PhD in physics from Texas State University and Israel's Ben Gurion University — credentials that were denied by both universities when contacted by CBC News.
Medland said she had met Romana a decade earlier when she was working with the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce. At that time, she loaned him $10,000, she said.
"I feel so naive and ignorant about it," she said. "He said, ‘That's the way I like to work,' so I just gave him $10,000 cash."
Medland said Romana re-approached her in 2013 and told her he was developing steam engine gasifiers that would run in "every household," as opposed to the large-scale operation she had previously invested in.
Medland said she asked Romana about the previous loan. She said he assured her that she would make all her money back and more.
Romana invited Medland and her partner to get in on the deal, claiming they would all make money and revolutionize the world, she said.
The couple jumped in, opening offices, leasing equipment, and signing up suppliers for the company. Medland invested more than $50,000.
Soon, Wessner, who says he has training as an aircraft mechanic, realized something was not right with the drawings Romana had provided. He started to question Romana's designs.
"It just wasn't shaping up," he said. "He didn't want to talk to me about concerns that I had."
Medland withdrew her retirement savings to start the business and is now facing bankruptcy and she can't get a hold of Romana.
"I'm broke," Medland said. "That was my retirement nest egg."
Long history of 'investor bait'
Winnipeggers are not the only ones taken in by what a former Romana associate, Doug Williams, calls "investor bait."
Williams said he was approached by Romana early in 2000 to buy gasifiers from Williams's company, Fluidyne.
When Romana told him he wanted to use the machines to burn garbage, Williams balked.
"I told him that just wouldn't work for that," Williams said. "It's built for burning wood pellets."
Romana promised $50,000 for the designs and started an energy company in Winnipeg that marketed the units to rural municipalities in Manitoba.
Williams said he got some of money, but said the rest of the fee didn't come and when he travelled to Winnipeg to check out the gasifier, he was shocked by what he saw.
"He deviated from the drawings from the very beginning," he said. "He had doubled the size of the components."
"It wasn't made anything like I drew it," he added.
Williams told CBC News the venture ended badly.
"He was such a believable con man," he said. "He wasn't at it to succeed. He was working at it to get money."
Investors in the lurch
According to articles published in 2006 by the Globe and Mail and other news outlets, Romana and his partners claimed that they had secured millions of dollars in contracts with private operators in major cities to have their waste processed by his machine at a Mohawk reservation.
The articles state that he was backed by "native cigarette money" but, again, his businesses failed, leaving investors in the lurch for an unknown amount of money.
The Washington Post reported on a trip Romana made to Washington, D.C., on the invitation of former mayor Marion Barry. A large-scale gasifier was trucked into the centre of the city for a demonstration.
However, the machine wasn't turned on due to local protests over its environmental impacts and safety concerns.
BSD Solutions Ltd., a Winnipeg company that provides specialized building and electrical services, built the gasifier for the Washington trip in 2005. The company is owed almost $600,000 for its business venture with Romana.
BSD Solutions won a judgment in court that ordered Romana to pay, but company president Darrell Driver said he doubts he will recover the loss.
"I just wanted to have it on the record," Driver said, "so that other people who are thinking of going into business with him will see that judgment against him."
Driver told CBC News that as recently as two years ago, Romana contacted him to draw him into new deals, but he didn't bite.
"I remind him he owes me three quarters of a million dollars," he said. "Usually, that ends the conversation."
Public warning in New Zealand
A few years after the meeting with Williams, Romana surfaced again in New Zealand, starting a company called Ira NRG NZ Ltd. and selling shares — again, using gasification as bait.
This time, authorities acted and the Securities Commission of New Zealand declared the company illegal and ordered the company liquidated.
A report by liquidator Clive Johnson describes a scheme in which commissioned salespeople would offer investors a payment plan to buy shares.
That scheme ensnared more than 240 investors that include Barry, the former Washington mayor.
According to the liquidator reports, the company kept no records, had no assets and owed almost $30,000 to creditors. The liquidator estimates the losses to investors would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Johnson told CBC News he has been unable to locate Romana.
More Winnipeg investors
Jeff Chartrand, a Winnipeg businessman, said he met Romana through a friend at his church in 2011 and Romana wanted him to invest in a "steam engine project."
Chartrand said he thought it sounded like a "cool idea" but didn't invest because the profits Romana was promising seemed too good to be true.
"That type of payback doesn't happen in the real world." Chartrand said.
Chartrand agreed to lend $55,000 to Merrill Romana, Simon Romana's spouse in Winnipeg, if they took out a mortgage on her home.
Chartrand said the payments stopped and eventually months passed in which he couldn't get a hold of Romana, so he moved to foreclose on the mortgage.
That's when Romana sued him, saying Chartrand had promised him employment.
"I was stressed out about it," Chartrand said. "I had no experience with this kind of thing."
Court documents show that Romana delayed the proceedings, but ultimately an auction date was set for the house. But a few days before the sale, Chartrand got his money back.
"We got a call that another investor is taking over the mortgage," he said.
CBC News has learned that the repayment was possible because a Winnipeg used car dealer, Charles Zubriski, bought out the mortgage on the Romana home earlier this year.
Now, he's owed tens of thousands of dollars.
Zubriski's business associate, Jerry Vesely, told CBC News he loaned Romana more than $10,000 in part because he trusted Zubriski, but he didn't secure that money.
Vesely said he's hopeful that Romana will pay up, as the loan just matured this week.
"I'm looking forward to finding out where he's at with this revolutionary engine," he said. "I'm just going to see how he responds to me."
Medland said she cannot understand how he can operate with impunity for so many years in so many countries.
As well, she said she was just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and that makes returning to work very hard.
"I've always taken people at their face value," she said. "I can't believe that people would act without any kind of good will or good intent."
Medland said she approached the Winnipeg Police Service's commercial crime division and the Manitoba Securities Commission, but she hasn't been able to recover her money.
She said a commission spokesperson told her it basically "sounded like an expensive lesson."
"If I was going to have a $50,000 life lesson, I'd prefer it to be when I'm in my 20s or 30s," she said. "But not where I am right now."
The Manitoba Securities Commission is re-evaluating its decision not to investigate Medland's case.
A spokesperson with the commission said in an emailled statement, "Ms. Medland has recently provided new information that the MSC was not previously made aware of and staff is in the process of re-evaluation this matter."
Medland has launched a crowd-sourcing campaign to help with her legal fees.
Romana tells his side of the story
CBC News contacted Simon Romana but he initially declined a request for an interview.
Two weeks later, he contacted CBC News to tell his side of the story.
'I’m not hiding from anybody. People didn’t look too hard.' - Simon Romana
He said he “owes nothing” to Darrell Driver and Doug Williams and that Katherine Medland didn't give him $55,000.
He admitted Zubriski has a mortgage on his home, but said it was a private matter between the two men.
“What is wrong with me putting a mortgage on my home?” Romana said.
He declined to answer whether he had a PhD or not and would not provide details of his educational background.
He also disputed the New Zealand liquidator reports and said that the shares he sold were actually his own personal shares and they were passed onto members of his family.
Romana also said an employee of his New Zealand company was responsible for selling shares to the public through commissioned sales people and that the employee did so without his knowledge.
The liquidator assigned to his company could have found him, as he's lived in Canada for 17 years and left his contact information at the commission's office in New Zealand, Romana added.
“I’m not hiding from anybody,” he said. “People didn’t look too hard.”
When asked to provide names of cities or jurisdictions that had successfully used his gasifer, Romana said it was "none of your business".
Romana is working with a local art group that focuses on recovery from mental illness, according to the group's website.
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(Additional video sources: YouTube/Community News Commons. Additional photo sources: Winnipeg Free Press, Facebook)