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How a Dallas Hedge Fund Manager Got Caught Up in a World of Fraud

How Barrett Wissman went from running a lawn-care company to orchestrating a $100 million scheme that has him standing in the cross hairs of the SEC.
By Tim Rogers |
illustration by Peter Horvath

On March 19, 2009, the New York Office of the Attorney General and the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C., dropped two bombshells on the secretive world of high finance. For two years, the agencies had run a coordinated investigation into how New York’s comptroller picked investments for the state’s $150 billion pension fund. On that Thursday, the New York AG released a 123-count indictment of two men who worked for disgraced former comptroller Alan Hevesi. The charges included securities fraud, bribery, and money laundering. The SEC complaint mirrored the AG’s charges, saying that Hank Morris, the top political strategist and chief fundraiser for Hevesi, and David Loglisci, the top investment officer of the pension fund, orchestrated a scheme that netted the men and other Hevesi associates tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks from firms that invested the pension fund’s money.

News of the charges rocked Wall Street. But as the shock waves rippled across the country, they especially rattled an office on the 40th floor of Thanksgiving Tower in downtown Dallas. That’s where a central figure in the scheme worked—though the court filings, curiously, didn’t mention him by name. The AG’s indictment called him “John Doe 1.” The SEC went with its own cryptic nomenclature, referring to him as “Individual A.”

Who was he? And why wasn’t he identified? Officials weren’t talking, so the second question was anyone’s guess. Perhaps the mystery man had struck a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for his cooperation, maybe they had agreed not to name him. But the first question was easy to answer. There were enough clues in the filings to figure it out, which made the man’s “anonymity” even more puzzling.

The SEC complaint, for instance, mentioned that Individual A had invested at least $100,000 to market and distribute a comedy called Chooch that was produced by David Loglisci and his brothers. The low-budget movie is a story unto itself, but suffice to say it features Mexican prostitutes, a 9-pound dachshund named Kiwi Limone, and a slapstick donkey-riding scene. The SEC also said Individual A was a Loglisci family friend.

A few pages after the Chooch details—as if to say, “If you still haven’t figured it out, then here’s the giveaway”—the SEC complaint revealed that Individual A was associated with HFV Management, a hedge fund firm. The SEC alleged that Individual A paid a total of $600,000 in kickbacks to land $100 million worth of investments from the New York state pension fund. (Such investments would generate substantial fees for the firm that managed them.) Even better, the SEC alleged that once Individual A saw how the scheme worked, he wanted in on it. For a cut of the action, he funneled kickbacks from other investment managers to Loglisci and Morris.

There was only one man who was both a friend of Loglisci’s and also associated with HFV—aka Hunt Financial Ventures, the eponymous firm of Clark Hunt, located on the 40th floor of Thanksgiving Tower in the same suite where his father, Lamar Hunt, once ran his sports and business empire. That man was 46-year-old Barrett Wissman.

And who is Barrett Wissman, exactly, besides a central figure in an ever-expanding investigation that has led to more than 100 subpoenas being issued to investment firms across the country, that has embroiled no less than the Treasury Department’s Steven Rattner, and that has raised serious questions about how billions of dollars in state pension funds from New York to California are managed? It depends on whom you ask. Wissman, through his lawyer’s PR man, declined an interview request. But his rabbi says he’s a great guy. His godmother, on the other hand, says he’s a liar and a cheat.

In the mid-’90s, money was pouring into that Thanksgiving Tower office. On one side was the Hunt Sports Group, decorated with a signed Joe Montana Kansas City Chiefs jersey and other memorabilia related to its sports holdings. But the real action was on the other end of the office, where work of a decidedly less public nature was under way. That’s where Clark Hunt and his partner Barrett Wissman operated HW Finance and an associated thicket of offshore trusts and other financial vehicles (“HW” came from their last names).

Word around the office was that Wissman had gone to Yale and worked for a couple of years in international finance for Lazard Freres in New York City. Then his father had died, and he’d moved back to Dallas, just two years out of college, to assume control of the family’s chemical company, which he eventually sold. Some said he’d pocketed as much as $80 million. With that success, he’d persuaded Hunt, a friend from St. Mark’s, to launch an offshore fund called Infinity Investors with him.

Wissman’s aunt and godmother laughs at the notion. The family’s chemical company? It was called Athena Products. In addition to Veripretty tablecloths and Pretty Please housewares, it made lawn-care products under the brand name Carl Pool. It’s unclear when it was sold, but records indicate that in 1995 the company had just 30 employees and did only $2.5 million in sales. Wissman’s aunt says the family business didn’t make him wealthy. Far from it.

“I lent him money to keep Carl Pool out of bankruptcy,” says 78-year-old Rachelle, who asked that her last name not be used. “When I asked to be paid back, he claimed the money was a gift.”

In 1990, a Bexar County court ruled that Wissman had forged his aunt’s signature to defraud her of $96,250. “He was stupid enough to forge my signature on stationery that was not printed until two months after I supposedly wrote the letter on that stationery,” Rachelle says. Wissman was ordered to pay $233,919, which included awards for punitive damages and mental anguish. Rachelle says that in 1997, years after her godson had gone into business with Hunt, she was still trying to get him to pay up.

“You know, I haven’t spoken to his mother in years,” Rachelle says. “He basically tore the family to pieces. And prior to this, we were a very close-knit family. I would like to see him get his comeuppance. He took years out of my life in litigation that could have been avoided if he’d just done the right thing. There was something that made him feel that he was better than everybody else, smarter, more talented.”

A business associate who worked closely with Wissman in the Hunt office agrees with the assessment: “Barrett made me feel like he thought, ‘There’s me. And then there’s people like you. But I understand that, and you understand that, so we’re cool.’ ”

The associate tells a curious story about how Wissman once repaid a debt. The associate would rather not say exactly what he was owed, but when he hounded Wissman for the money, a partial payment finally showed up in an overnight package from a lawyer in London. Hundred-dollar bills were taped inside a magazine. “I can’t remember if it was Der Spiegel or what,” the associate says. “It wasn’t like it was sloppily taped in there. It was professionally done. The bills were taped throughout the magazine.”

This was the man who in 2005 secured the first of two $50 million investments from New York state’s pension fund. On the one hand, Wissman doesn’t present the picture of someone to whom such a sum ought to be entrusted. His previous Infinity fund had been burned so badly—losing bets on Russian bonds right before the 1998 “Ruble Crises,” then on a series of Internet companies right before that bubble burst—that the name HW Finance had to be shed like dead skin. The firm adopted the new name HFV. No “W” anywhere in it.

On the other hand, Wissman has an air about him. In 2001, he married an exotic Russian cellist named Nina Kotova, who worked for a time as a model. He’s also an accomplished pianist with a master’s degree in music from SMU. In 2003, he bought the talent agency IMG Artists, which represents performers from violinist Itzhak Perlman to dance troupe Pilobolus. He speaks six languages and has launched a series of music festivals around the world.

More important, though, he knows people. People like Steven Loglisci, brother of David Loglisci, the indicted top investment adviser with New York state’s pension fund. Steven was the New York director of Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign, for which Wissman volunteered. In 1998, Steven served as New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli’s financial adviser at Bear Stearns, until Wissman persuaded him to take over a struggling Internet company called e.Volve, which the senator then invested in—right before Wissman’s eVentures bought e.Volve, giving the senator a huge immediate paper gain on his investment. Torricelli later had to abandon a re-election bid over an unrelated ethics scandal. A third Loglisci brother, Nicholas, ran a computer networking company whose board included not only Wissman but also Torricelli’s ex-wife and his girlfriend.

It’s a complicated mess. Determining where the various conflicts of interest lie will take months, if not years. But Wissman appears to be helping prosecutors figure it out. In April, he pleaded guilty to a felony securities fraud and agreed to pay $12 million in penalties and is said to be cooperating in the investigation. HFV Management and HFV Asset Management agreed to pay a $150,000 penalty without admitting or denying wrongdoing.

Some people who’ve known Wissman for years are left scratching their heads. Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who officiated at Wissman’s wedding and now is a professor at the Vatican’s Angelicum University in Rome, says, “The person that I’ve known for 20 years has always been kind and generous. All I know is what I read in the paper. I find it absolutely astonishing. It’s just not the person I know.”

Scurry Johnson, who knows Wissman from St. Mark’s and runs a Dallas venture capital firm, says, “In my mind, he was never a thoroughly knowledgeable investment banker or hedge fund manager himself. So he may have been in the middle of a bunch of people who were more financially devious. Or I don’t know what the words are.”

But up on the 40th floor of Thanksgiving Tower, Clark Hunt has apparently made up his mind. After Wissman’s guilty plea, Hunt ordered the golden “HFV” initials taken down from the wooden front door. A few days later, when building maintenance workers still hadn’t removed the letters, Hunt let his displeasure be known. So the office manager went out there himself with a chisel and scraped them off. Then he covered the ugly spot on the door with brown shoe polish.

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