The man who banged on the door was in no mood for negotiation. He said that unless he got his money back he was going to kill someone he was dying of cancer, so what did he have to lose? Joe Daniels won’t name him “I don’t want him coming looking for me” but says the angry investor was once a leader of a notorious waterfront union and he meant what he said.
It happened last year, after Daniels had been persuaded to take over the management of a little-known but ambitiously named public company called Save The World Air Inc (STWA), and take up residence in the home of its founder, a waterside mansion with pool and tennis court at Carrara, on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
That did not turn out to be a good career move.
It soon became apparent that the company, and its founder, were in diabolical trouble. “I answered the phone and I tried to take care of people’s bitches,” says Daniels. “And 85 per cent had legit bitches: `Where are my shares I paid for?’, `Why can’t I sell my shares?’ All day long, every day. They had [bought] something that was worth absolutely nothing.”
An easygoing American with a velvet voice, Daniels came to Australia 20 years ago touring as an Elvis Presley impersonator, fell in love with the place and settled down, making a living on the club and cabaret circuit. Among the many friends he made was one Jeffrey Alan Muller, promoter extraordinaire the man that former wharfie was looking for.
Now aged 49, the tanned, fleshy, fast-talking Muller is a one-time Sydney real estate salesman who lays claim on his company’s Web site to an extraordinary CV former champion speedway driver, “one of the most successful property developers in Australia for his age (18 years)”, and a friend of celebrities such as Ted Turner, Olivia Newton-John, John Denver and Steven Seagal. He also boasts that he once owned the Gold Coast Chargers, a defunct rugby league team. What Muller does not mention is that the franchise was taken away after only a couple of months when he failed to come up with the money, brought in a faith-healer and, according to a judge, “… by inept interference in the club’s affairs, created such instability that its chief executive officer and some other important personnel associated with it resigned”.
But Daniels regarded him as a bosom buddy Muller was a groomsman at his wedding, was present at the birth of his son, jammed with him nights on the guitar. “He’s the only living cartoon character I know … Popeye or Beetle Bailey or Donald Duck,” says Daniels. “He’s just amazing when I’ve been around him 15 minutes I feel as though I’ve just drunk 80 cups of coffee or taken crack [cocaine] or something.”
So when, four years ago, Muller told his friend he was starting up a company to help save the planet from pollution, no less, Daniels was eager to plunge in. He invested his own money, he persuaded relatives in the United States to buy $300,000 worth of shares; finally he allowed Muller to talk him into running the office while Muller disappeared on one of his frequent overseas trips.
The trouble started shortly after when someone posted the Carrara address on the Internet, where investors had been baying for Muller’s blood on day-trader chat sites such as ragingbull.com, following the collapse of STWA’s share price. People began phoning, faxing, bombarding the company with emails and, eventually, banging on the door.
The story of the wharfie with cancer is one of the few with a happy ending. According to Daniels, the man’s friends were begging him to let them “do the world a favour and off [murder]” Muller and his wife Lynette they even followed Muller to Florida and shadowed him as he travelled.
Eventually, Daniels persuaded Muller to settle the debt, which was about $78,000, by handing the man tradable scrip in STWA which he managed to sell for a profit. The grateful ex-wharfie gave Daniels a gift of $10,000 “because you’re the only honest motherf—er”.
However, around the world, hundreds of other investors were not so lucky. They are stuck with bundles of shares in a company once worth more than $400 million, which promised to save the planet but which now admits it has a pile of debt and no money, no employees, no income worth speaking of, no rented offices and no prospect of paying a dividend and whose only asset is an invention whose ownership is hotly disputed.NOW aged 72 and in poor health, Pro Hart is still an Australian icon. From his base in Broken Hill he has built a national reputation as a bush artist, and has just announced plans to lease out some of his remarkable collection of paintings attributed to international masters, from Rembrandt to Renoir and Picasso.
What is less well known is that Hart is also an enthusiastic inventor his nickname is short for “professor” of all sorts of gadgets. The most interesting, from Jeffrey Muller’s point of view, is the device on which his company is built, a piece of shiny metal the size of a cigarette packet with holes drilled through it, called a Zero Emission Fuel Saver.
Fitted between the carburettor and the manifold of an older-model car, STWA makes the astonishing claim that the $195 gadget can reduce poisonous exhaust gases to almost zero, while increasing fuel consumption 42 per cent. Hart, says his business manager, Rory Ryan, spent 30 years refining the device in his workshop before he shared his secret with Muller.
It was not the first time Muller had attempted to cash in on “green” technology. Some years earlier, he claimed to have developed an engine “which runs on nothing but compressed air!”. Then he got involved in promoting something he called a “super kiri tree” which he claimed was the world’s fastest-growing hardwood, growing 35ft a year and able to be harvested in two years this turned out to be a small plantation of paulownia trees, a popular tax-minimisation scheme of the mid-1990s.
Hart and Muller met by chance on the Gold Coast, and on June 26, 1997, a “marketing and manufacturing agreement” was signed under which the artist gave the entrepreneur exclusive worldwide distribution rights to the anti-pollution device, in exchange for 20 per cent of the anticipated profits. At least, that’s Muller’s story.
Pro Hart, according to his lawyer, Tony Freestone, denies ever having signed this agreement, pointing out that he uses the signature “Pro Hart” only on his paintings on legal documents he signs with his given name, “K.C. Hart”. Freestone says Hart has never received a cent from Muller, is outraged that his device is being misrepresented, and is contemplating legal action.
Muller, however, had decided that Hart’s gadget he acknowledges the real inventor on his Web site, though he has lodged a patent application himself would be the key to fabulous wealth. He bought a listed US “shelf company”, changed its name to Save The World Air Inc, made himself president and sold the company his rights to the device (for which he had paid nothing, remember) for $1 million, plus 5 million shares.
Even amid the high-tech hyperventilation of 1999-2000, Muller’s promotion of the company was extraordinary. He pumped out a score of media releases, he demonstrated the device on Fox TV, he was written up in The New York Times, and he recruited a stable of sporting and showbiz celebrities he claimed endorsed the device.
The former world champion racing-car driver Jack Brabham helped promote it, PGA champion Wayne Grady was enlisted, Hollywood star Steven Seagal videotaped a testimonial, former Australian sports minister John Brown wrote: “I have never been more impressed over my long life in business and politics with any other venture.” All now repudiate these endorsements.
In the new-found freedom of cyberspace, hundreds of buyers in Australia and overseas rushed to snap up the stock and Muller was eager to accommodate them. The latest filings with the US corporate watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), show that Muller has sold about 1 million of his own shares the shares he got for nothing at prices anywhere from 10¢ to $10 each. The company return shows that 835 shareholders scattered from Scotland to Australia to the US and Canada own a total of 15 million shares. Those located by the Herald include a number of Sydney and Queensland businessmen, a restaurateur, a policeman, an agent for the investment adviser Rothschild, and an airline pilot now working in Papua New Guinea to try to save the home he mortgaged to buy shares.
Whipped along by Internet chat-room gush some of it planted by Muller’s friends the shares rocketed up from a few cents when it listed in 1999 to a peak of $28 last July. This valued the company at $420 million, and Muller who owns about a quarter of the stock joined the ranks of Australia’s wealthiest men, worth more than $100 million on paper. “I’ve been told we’ve got the potential to be as big as Microsoft,” he crowed to a Bloomberg business wire reporter. He had just sold his first distribution franchise for “a guaranteed $4 million” to a Jamaican auto-parts dealer, he said, and planned to sell 100 more for $20 million apiece a cool $2 billion.
However, those deals came to nothing and most of those who bought shares from Muller soon discovered they were not to share in the wealth.UNLIKE Bill Gates, Muller has never manufactured anything. The only Zero Emission Fuel Savers in existence are about a dozen closely guarded prototypes used for demonstrations, which were knocked up by Adrian Menzell of Ashmore Wreckers, a Gold Coast car-parts yard. Joe Daniels says Muller had no intention of actually selling the devices, because that would give away the secret they were made of cheap, simple magnets. “Once somebody sees one and holds one in their hand they can go out and make one in their garage,” he says, “He’s got no product he’s out there peddling air.”
The other problem Muller had the one which was to bring his wild ride to a grinding halt is that the claims made for the device had never been independently scientifically verified. He had conducted demonstrations with pollution testing machines, but never submitted it for examination by a government standards laboratory, or a major car manufacturer or oil company.
So how to explain an endorsement from a university which featured prominently in the company’s promotional material? On the letterhead of Queensland’s Griffith University, Dr Allan Edwards certifies that he has seen the machine work under “credible circumstances” and believes it to be “highly effective”. Contacted by the Herald, Edwards said that he had no expertise in vehicle emissions he conducts a course in sports management and marketing. He said he had been invited to a demonstration of the device because he was a friend of Muller’s and he had not received any shares or payment for the endorsement. He had not realised how his letter would be used and now feared that he would be sacked from the university. “I feel really ashamed and angry,” he said. ” I was a frightful goose. I’d like to wring his [Muller’s] effing neck. I feel used and abused by him.”
Others are equally angry. Geoff Campbell, a former bank manager, has known Muller for years and bought about 20,000 shares in the Save The World group when they hit $28 last year, he thought he was sitting on a small fortune and sent the scrip to his broker to sell. It was then he learnt Muller had sold him “restricted” stock which was unregistered and could not be traded. “The broker told me they are worthless `Wallpaper your toilet with them,’ he said.”
Some of the more canny commentators had also focused on the fact that this hot “tech” company appeared to have no assets and no prospects. Last July, Stock Patrol published a two-part investigation headlined Stock or Schlock? on the Internet, which concluded: “Investors will have to decide for themselves is there an upside to these down under companies? Or have they simply tossed their investment on the barbie?”
The next day, as STWA’s share price gyrated wildly, the watchdogs at the SEC moved in. Citing a misleading media release implying the Ford Motor Company was interested in the device, the SEC suspended trading in the stock “because of questions raised about the accuracy and adequacy of publicly disseminated information concerning the results of tests of [the] Zero Emission Fuel Saver”.
And there the stock has languished ever since, in the limbo of the so-called “Pink Sheets”, a fourth-tier listing for securities that do not qualify for any of the official, regulated US exchanges or over-the-counter boards. The last sale reported was about $2, which is 7 per cent of its price nine months ago.
As for Muller, he recently returned from yet another “road show” in the US to a newly purchased home on the Gold Coast the waterside mansion having been seized by the mortgagee still promoting the company to anyone who will listen, though declining to talk to the Herald.
“What can you do?” says Joe Daniels. “That man could fall into a septic and come up smelling of roses.”
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 28 April 2001
Section: News And Features
Sub section: News Review
Word count: 2340
Classification: Industry/Inventions Nature/Environment/Pollution/Air Pollution People/Name/Hart/Pro/Artist
Geographic area: QLD Usa
Photomontage: A promotional mock-up featuring Joe Daniels, Pro Hart, Jack Brabham and Jeffrey Muller.