Pyramid Scheme

Men boasting CIA and FBI ties met in Newport Beach to convince a mysterious billionaire to buy into a secret economy, and nothing was what it seemed

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Richard Arthur Pundt knows all about surreptitious surveillance. He is a former FBI special agent, but his demeanor lacks any hint of law-enforcement swagger. He's a good-natured fellow who enjoys sitting for hours in a coffee shop and talking and laughing with anyone willing to strike up a conversation.

That's not to suggest Pundt is an empty suit. A former prosecutor and local Republican Party chairman, he owns Enlighten Technologies Inc., an Iowa-based government-contracting firm that supplies secure video-conferencing services for confidential gatherings. His close friends include men who've served as U.S. marshals, state judges, FBI agents and state attorney general investigators. He's even pals with a high-ranking member of INTERPOL, the France-based international police agency focused on organized-crime syndicates. Given his extensive law-enforcement ties, Pundt should easily spot a con game and the crooks who run it. Indeed, the 67-year-old Cedar Rapids resident has been known to issue warnings that confidence men are constantly devising schemes to steal gullible people's money.

Jesse Lenz
John Brent Leiske
John Brent Leiske

In May 2006, Pundt flew first-class from Iowa to the Newport Beach Marriott and told Tarpinski that if he put $1 billion in cash into a special overseas bank account, he'd enter a private but government-approved club.

Protective of their boss, Tarpinski's staff recorded Pundt during an earlier phone conversation. "I know there are people running around saying there is no such [secret society]," he said, according to a transcript obtained by OC Weekly. "Well, they are wrong."

Pundt explained that the Federal Reserve and CIA primarily regulate the secret, "bona fide" investment program that is only "open to very elite people."

In another conversation, he said, "This whole business—getting to the right people—is who you know and the right contacts."

Is the ex-FBI agent misguided? Or is he privy to explosive insider information? Is it possible federal agents and businessmen could devise a secret world and mask its existence?

Two acclaimed Washington Post reporters may have answered that question. In early September of this year, the Post's Dana Priest and William M. Arkin published "Top Secret America," touted by PBS's Frontline as "a two-year examination into the massive, unwieldy top-secret world" constructed by the federal government after 9/11.

Priest and Arkin describe how Americans are kept in the dark about new government agencies' missions, locations, employees and budgets, as well as the identities of private subcontractors. Even the names of the agencies aren't publicly known. According to the reporters, nowadays, not even top national-security advisers to presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have known who is doing what in the name of national security.

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"The best way to attack the United States is through attacking the dollar," John Brent Leiske of Oregon told Tarpinski when the Emerald Cove room meeting began. "[The terrorists] have learned that since 9/11."

With his back to the picturesque view, the 46-year-old, obese Leiske sat at a white-cloth-topped, U-shaped table arranged with filled ceramic coffee mugs and Fiji water bottles in front of the six attendees, including Tarpinski, Edwards, Martin of New Jersey, Chelak of Canada and Ferry of Corona del Mar. The soft-spoken Chelak controlled the group, but he preferred that Leiske, the youngest and most animated member, lead the presentation.

After rolling up the sleeves of his pink button-down shirt, Leiske assured the billionaire that he'd gotten this far in his application to join their "rare group" because "you're not involved in any type of blowing up a place or anything like that." Martin and Ferry chimed in that while they'd worked with Asians and Arabs, they preferred deals with Americans. Tarpinski listened silently.

"So who are we?" Leiske continued. "Are we a big institution that has a shingle outside, trying to attract clients to come in and do transactions with us? No. . . . We are people behind [joint government/private efforts] that want to keep the U.S. dollar strong. . . . We try to design transactions to assist the U.S. dollar."

According to Leiske, his group owns a secret "financial patent" sanctioned by the government. That patent allowed them to use a select person's assets as credit in a hidden economy that produced rapid, astronomical profits with no tax liabilities. To stifle detection, account names were routinely altered and money constantly shifted between Asian, European and American markets.

There were, of course, conditions to access this world. Tarpinski must sign a written contract with mostly non-negotiable terms. One item was a strict confidential agreement. "If you go and share this information, no one's going to believe you," explained Leiske. "We do want to keep it private, but that's to keep you safe and us safe."

Tarpinski would also have to share his windfall. After a 1 percent to 5 percent transaction fee, remaining profits from his $1 billion investment would be split 50-50 between him and a World Bank-approved humanitarian project.

The billionaire had already made it clear he thought the humanitarian angle was ridiculous, but not enough to dampen his interest. Leiske and his colleagues had sized up Tarpinski as a man motivated primarily by greed. To put a fine point on his pitch, Leiske added, "You put up one [dollar], you get back six."

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