On the sunbaked streets of Frederiksted, a desolate harbor town on St. Croix's impoverished west coast, everybody seems to know Rob Newell.
The self-proclaimed moneyman behind the D.C. slots initiative showed up here last fall after his firm offered to pay $412,000 cash for 17 Strand, a small building on the sleepy waterfront. Even before the sale closed, Newell set to work, hiring craftsmen to install hurricane-proof windows with mahogany frames and slap a fresh coat of jaunty pink paint on the exterior.
For weeks, the building's former owner, Jim Salafia, thought Newell was renovating the place for himself. Then one day, Newell mentioned that he needed permission for some task from "the big boss." And Salafia realized that "tall Rob," as he calls Newell, was "just a worker bee."
For much of his life, Newell, 43, has built a career as a worker bee in business deals arranged by others. Some ended badly: A California hotel he managed went bankrupt. A Las Vegas casino he owned failed to obtain a gambling license and later was torn down. A Spokane, Wash., investment firm of which he was an officer dissolved after state regulators accused it of swindling elderly, sick people out of their life savings.
Now Newell is campaigning to bring slot machines to the nation's capital. For weeks, he has insisted that his company, North Atlantic Investments, is paying for the slots campaign on its own. But Friday, North Atlantic's general manager, Steve Silver, acknowledged that the company is borrowing cash from Bridge Capital USVI, which owns the pink building at 17 Strand and employs Newell as its "chief operating officer and director of capital markets."
That raises new questions about who stands to benefit if slots come to Washington.
Bridge Capital is owned by Shawn Scott and John K. Baldwin, Las Vegas entrepreneurs who have tried for years to qualify for a license to operate a big-time gambling venture. They have had little luck, public records show. Scott, whose properties have received financial support from Baldwin, has been denied or failed to obtain gambling licenses in five states where regulators found evidence of financial mismanagement, irregular accounting practices and hidden partnerships.
Scott proposed the D.C. slots project in April to attorney John Ray, a former D.C. Council member who serves as legal counsel to slots supporters. Later, Ray said, he discovered Scott's troubled past and demanded that Scott abandon the project. In a June interview, Ray said Scott was out of the picture.
On Friday, Ray did not respond to a message left at his office about the Bridge Capital loans. Businessman Pedro Alfonso, the sole local investor in the slots proposal, declined to comment on Scott's involvement. "If that is happening, I wasn't aware of it," he said.
Since April, nearly $700,000 has flowed to the District from 17 Strand, according to campaign finance reports. Silver would not say whether all or just part of the cash was supplied by Bridge Capital. The money has paid for high-priced attorneys, well-connected local activists and an army of petition circulators who led the drive to win a spot for the gambling initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot.
This week, the D.C. elections board must decide whether to overlook allegations of widespread fraud in the petition drive and allow the slots initiative to move forward. If voters approve it, Newell and his associates would win a 10-year monopoly on gambling in the District and a license to operate 3,500 slot machines on a 14-acre site in Northeast Washington -- where Newell is promising to finance a $510 million entertainment complex with help from other investors.
In the past, Newell's bosses have stumbled in their quest for gambling licenses after failing to survive background investigations. But that kind of scrutiny would not be much of an obstacle in the District, where there are no gambling regulators.
All the rules for oversight are laid out in the slots initiative, which would have the force of law if voters approve it. Under the initiative, D.C. officials would "not [be] permitted to determine the suitability" of Newell and his associates to operate a gambling facility, and would be required to issue them a temporary license if they sign an affidavit attesting to their good character, according to a legal analysis submitted to the elections board by D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti.
"Furthermore, the Temporary Initial License application does not require identification of any of the Licensee's Principals, only that the Licensee certify that the Principals (apparently without having to name them) are not unsuitable," Spagnoletti wrote. And if the principals are "regulated financial institutions," they need never be identified, much less investigated, according to Spagnoletti.
Gambling experts said the initiative would give the District the most lenient rules in the nation.
In states that have legalized gambling, "anyone that's a beneficial owner would have to undergo a background check," said Sebastian Sinclair, a gambling consultant at Christiansen Capital Advisors. "It's consumer protection. To make sure there is no organized crime influence . . . to let customers know the games are fair and they're not going to get cheated."
William A. Bible, former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, chuckled when told of the rules proposed in the D.C. initiative. He called them an open invitation to "Mafia Bank Inc."
Whether D.C. residents will get a chance to vote on the initiative depends on a decision by the D.C. elections board. Through eight days of public hearings, the board has heard allegations that the petition drive in support of the slots initiative was marred by widespread violations of local election laws. Some D.C. residents said their signatures were forged on petitions circulated by someone else. The board must decide whether enough signatures are legitimate to earn the initiative a spot on the ballot.
Through hours of testimony, Newell sat alone in the hearing room, sometimes jotting notes. When asked about the initiative's prospects, he said he was optimistic.
Newell repeatedly has refused to discuss his relationship with Scott and Baldwin, and North Atlantic's relationship with Bridge Capital, a private lending firm Baldwin founded in Nevada in 1995. The company moved last year to Frederiksted, where it has qualified for an economic development program that gives the firm and its owners a 90 percent exemption from federal income taxes for 15 years.
In its application for the program, Bridge described itself as an investment and consulting firm "with a focus on clients engaged in casino/gaming acquisitions and operations." Silver would not say whether Bridge intends to invest in the D.C. gambling operation. Scott and Baldwin did not respond to messages left at 17 Strand.
Newell also has rebuffed requests for personal information. In June, he told a reporter that he had "a broad background in lending, hotel operations and projects like this around the country." Asked more recently to list some of those projects, Newell said, "I'm not going to comment."
Information gleaned from a number of sources, including public documents, corporate records and interviews with people who have done business with Newell, paints a portrait of a small-town boy from Northern Idaho who has long chased great wealth without obvious success.
Some of the few facts Newell has publicly disclosed about his life could not be verified. For example, Newell claimed through a spokeswoman to have served as "director of the Spokane Economic Development Council." But no one at the Spokane Area Economic Development Council, the Spokane Neighborhood Economic Development Alliance or the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce knew who he was.
"We did all the checking we could. Nobody's heard of this guy," chamber spokesman Jeff Selle said.
Newell also claimed through a spokeswoman to have "owned 100 percent of the Chaparral Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip." And Newell told Ray that he "operated casino activities in Las Vegas at one point," Ray said.
But Nevada gaming officials have never heard of Newell. Public records indicate that he briefly owned the Chaparral in 1996, when it was known as the Lone Star. But the financially troubled hotel has never held a gambling license, said Keith Copher, chief of enforcement for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, who said the hotel was torn down several years ago.
Ray has defended Newell. In June, Ray said he had "done due diligence on Rob" and concluded that Newell "has invested and operated in a lot of arenas with major companies that clearly demonstrate he's a very good businessman."
Newell, who was born Nov. 1, 1960, received a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Idaho in 1982 and an MBA from the same school in 1984. He went to work in Spokane, joining Shearson Lehman Hutton in 1985.
Newell left that firm in 1988, according to his resume, and went to work for Empire Securities, an investment adviser. In 1997, a series of complaints prompted Washington state regulators to investigate Empire Securities, numerous affiliates and their officers, including Newell. The investigation concluded that Empire preyed for years on unsophisticated investors who were often old and sick.
In 1998, Washington state accused Empire of securities fraud and "dishonest and unethical practices." Newell was not personally sanctioned, but the National Association of Securities Dealers censured him in 1999, concluding that he had "made unsuitable recommendations to public customers," according to records in Washington state.
Meanwhile, Newell moved to Claremont, Calif., where he and some Empire associates formed Claremont Management. The firm bought the town's biggest inn out of bankruptcy, promising to "turn it into a world-class hotel," said Scott Miller, economic development director for the city of Claremont. Two years later, the Claremont Inn was still "a total mess," Miller said. "The landscaping was horrible. The AC, electric and water were failing."
Claremont Management filed for bankruptcy, and the city discovered that the firm had taken out "some very suspicious third and fourth mortgages" on the property, Miller said. "It looked like people were pulling profits out rather than making investments."
The city sued, Miller said, demanding that Newell identify the mortgage holders, "which they would never reveal to us." The city dropped the suit in 2000 when the bankruptcy settled and Claremont Management lost control of the inn.
After that, Newell returned to Idaho offering lots for sale at Magic Lake Ranch, which is described on a Web site as a "lakeside retreat" near Sun Valley with "breathtaking mountain vistas."
According to neighbors and county and federal officials, the lots sit on Magic Reservoir in the treeless southern Idaho desert, 25 miles from the nearest mountain. The reservoir, they said, has been half-empty for years, leaving the lots high and dry and facing a lakebed full of gravel. Lonnie LeaVell, a cattleman who recently sold a nearby spread, said there's also no road and no electricity.
Newell's broker, Judy Cash, said the lots -- priced at up to $89,900 -- have not sold. In 2002, public records show Newell borrowed about $245,000 against the development, which has been in his family for years.
Newell's resume shows that he also went to work for the Hard Money Funding Network, which solicits investors to fund private loans at very high interest rates. Hard Money is operated by Newell's brother Michael, 52, who has long ties to Scott and Baldwin, joining them in a failed South Carolina video poker operation that declared bankruptcy in 1999.
LeaVell said Rob Newell once tried to talk him into becoming a Hard Money investor, promising an 18 percent return on his money. But "I wasn't really interested," LeaVell said. "I told him, if we did anything together, I wanted [to be] paid in advance."
Staff writer Serge F. Kovaleski and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.