Tom Durkin's office is a temporary arrangement a stopover, if you will, between his 12 years on the top floor of the Huntington Bank Building downtown and the more than five years he will spend in a federal penitentiary.
Located in a Westlake office park with I-90 running behind it, the office looks respectable but generic. Durkin has brought in a few photos of his three kids and some paintings, but the place is permeated by a sense of loneliness.
Durkin's secretary (the only other employee) still answers the phone with "Cashel Management" the name of the investment firm through which Durkin lost $85 million of his clients' money. She spends much of her time making copies of financial documents, either for the FBI or for former clients who need them for tax purposes. There are, of course, no investments left to tend.
Durkin looks as he usually does these days, dressed not in a suit but in a green sweater and khakis. But he has lost none of his precision and focus. If anything, there's a scalpel's edge to his work, pulling files and stacking them on a card table, cross-referencing a maze of reports and figures and memoranda, determined to prove he's not a financial villain, even though he pleaded guilty to exactly that in March and is now awaiting a likely 64-month sentence.
According to federal prosecutors, Durkin aided by Cashel vice president John Orin siphoned money from his clients' accounts to fund Rx Remedy, a health-information company founded by his friend Karamjeet Paul. As Rx Remedy expanded onto the Internet, its fortunes followed the dramatic rise and fall of tech stocks, with Cashel pumping increasing millions into the company to keep it afloat. When the bubble finally burst in December 2000, $85 million of Cashel investors' money was gone, leaving only lawsuits, financial ruin and a tragic human toll.
In a horrific turn, Durkin's lifelong friend and Cashel vice president, Tim Brennan, who was named in one of the lawsuits, committed suicide by jumping off the Hilliard Road bridge in Rocky River.
Others, such as Frank Weakley, a retired Cleveland Clinic surgeon who invested his life savings with Cashel on the basis of a 10-year friendship with Orin, must find a way to go on.
The level of personal betrayal runs deep for Weakley, who supported Orin through the loss of his first wife to cancer and hosted a dinner party at his home when Orin remarried. "He never told us Rx Remedy was a risky investment. And when we told him we wanted to get out, he talked us out of it," says Weakley. "He said and this is a quote 'Your money is as safe as if it were in government bonds.' "
And Tim Brennan is dead, his name permanently and unfairly linked to the scandal.
"Tim Brennan was not even indirectly involved, and quite possibly didn't have any knowledge of it," says U.S. Attorney John Sammon.
So Durkin, wiry and compact at 56, sits in his secluded office, facing hard time that will take him away from his family a wife, a 10-year-old daughter, a 21-year-old son and a 22-year-old daughter for at least 4 1/2 years with time off for good behavior, according to federal prosecutors. When he gets out, he could owe up to $200 million to former clients who have filed lawsuits against him. Durkin, who says he lost at least $5 million of his own money and about $30 million of his family's money on Rx Remedy, has no assets left. "I don't even have a checkbook," he notes.
Because criminal charges were still pending, Durkin was long advised not to speak with the media. Now, after the guilty plea, he is free to argue his case. But his story will most likely never clear his name one that had been gaining respect in the Cleveland community since his father formed a metal-finishing company, now called Plastic Platers Inc., in the 1920s. "Up until what's transpired, if you mentioned the name Durkin it was met with nothing but respect and admiration," says one member of Westwood Country Club, an exclusive Rocky River enclave where both Orin and Durkin and much of Durkin's family were members.
Durkin is, at times, remorseful for his actions, but he is just as quick to launch into a lengthy explanation of how significant value could have been salvaged from the company if only the lawyers and prosecutors hadn't closed in on him. He is willing to admit culpability but only to a point.
The three players in the fall of Cashel Management no longer speak to one another.
Orin, who is battling cancer, has been called intensely likable and "a pillar of the community" by one person close to the case. In his free time, he volunteered at the national level for the American Cancer Society. Orin pleaded guilty in January to aiding and abetting wire fraud and is likely to spend about 1 1/2 years in prison, according to federal prosecutors.
Karamjeet Paul is most often described as focused and intelligent some even call him a genius. He emigrated from India when he was in his early 20s and spent time working in Cleveland before moving to Connecticut, where he formed Rx Remedy. His hearing is scheduled for June. (Both Orin and Paul declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The three men's paths converged in the mid-1970s at Union Commerce Bank. Durkin, 26 years old at the time, was working as an investment manager in the bank's trust department. Orin, a Harvard Business School graduate, ran the department's administrative side. The two men lived along the Lakewood-Rocky River border and became friends while working and driving home together.
Paul joined Union Commerce in planning and corporate development after earning an MBA from Case Western Reserve University. A smart, polished businessman, Paul impressed bank managers here and at Citicorp in New York, where he went to work in 1977.
Durkin left Union Commerce around the same time to start his own investment firm. After five years at the bank, managing institutional funds had lost its allure. "It's impersonal and not much fun," he says. "The individual side is much more enjoyable. You develop personal relationships and feel like you're doing something to help people."
The move reflected his style and upbringing. Durkin grew up in Cleveland's West Park neighborhood off Rocky River Drive, practically in the back yard of St. Joseph's Academy. (Later, Durkin handled the school's investments, donating his fees back to the academy.) His life traces a classic West Side Irish Catholic arc: '64 graduate of St. Ignatius, '68 graduate of Notre Dame, part of a lifelong network of neighborhood friends, such as Tim Brennan and Robert Mooney, a corporate consultant and investment banker who became a Cashel client.
After college, Durkin was drafted and spent a year in Vietnam in the 101st Airborne an experience he is reticent to describe, breaking his silence only when it is suggested that he stayed with Rx Remedy too long because he didn't want to admit to his clients that he had made a mistake.
"I've done plenty tougher things than that," he says. "I was in an assault helicopter company, then a hunter-killer company. Those are tough things to do."
In 1982, Durkin incorporated as Cashel Management. (The name is taken from a small village in County Mayo, Ireland, the ancestral home of his father's family.) Eventually, he persuaded Brennan, his college roommate at Notre Dame, to join Cashel as a research analyst. Not long afterward, he added Orin. The trio complemented one another: Brennan, the "inside man" crunching numbers and running systems; Orin, the "outside man" schmoozing clients and scouting new business; and Durkin, managing the investments. By the early '90s, the firm was handling $40 million in investments from the Huntington Building's penthouse suite.
But Cashel never touted its performance by the numbers. Durkin didn't want to live by single-quarter or six-month performance standards, and had no interest in the kind of short-term customers that attracts. "We wanted the stability of a relationship, because it takes time to do things for people," he says. "That's why all our business came through referrals, from people who had a history with us or knew our character. You can't solicit trust."
That approach worked as long as the numbers were good. According to figures compiled by Durkin, many investors earned yearly returns of 30 percent and more during the market boom in the mid to late 1990s.
But it had the potential to turn ugly. For the most part, Cashel clients comprised a network of relatives and friends for whom an ill-managed investment would represent not just bad business judgment, but an act of personal negligence or betrayal.
Working in that atmosphere also gave Durkin and Orin extraordinary leeway in handling accounts. To retain Cashel, clients signed an agreement giving the company "complete discretion with respect to the investments of your funds." That in itself is not unusual. But in a strictly professional relationship, investment managers tend not to argue when clients call with orders to buy or sell. Durkin and Orin, on the other hand, felt no compunction about trying to talk clients into reconsidering or waiting or ignoring the current numbers in lieu of better times ahead.
For a long time, their advice proved sound. But when they stumbled, it proved to be their undoing.
While Durkin was building Cashel, Karamjeet Paul was moving up Citicorp's corporate ranks. In the late '80s, Paul was charged with creating a spin-off business that collected marketing information on supermarket shoppers. It's a standard procedure today, but was a revolutionary way of doing business at the time.
Paul saw a sensational opportunity and not in supermarkets.
With an aging population, health care is one of the fastest-growing, most profitable markets in America. If Paul could connect providers, such as hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, with consumers interested in specific treatments and products, he would carve out a lucrative position as the middleman.
His first vehicle was Rx Remedy, a controlled-circulation magazine that debuted in July 1992. The magazine was never intended to make money. Its value was in lengthy questionnaires filled out by readers, which ultimately gave Paul a database of the habits, interests and needs of nearly 1.5 million health-care consumers. With this exceptional marketing data, Rx Remedy soon attracted the interest of major players such as Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, which used Paul's information to direct-market its first cholesterol-lowering drug, Mevacor.
Paul found an eager group of investors in Cleveland, starting with Durkin, who personally put $10,000 into Rx Remedy in 1993. Durkin also introduced several of his clients to Paul. Rx Remedy's early investors included Durkin's brother, George, an attorney; Robert Bensman, president and owner of Ver-A-Fast; Evan Corns, president and owner of America's Body; Robert Mooney; Phil Ranney, an attorney and trustee of the Thelma G. Smith Trust; Larry Rice, president of Drop Dies and Forging; and Richard Streeter and Charles Weeks of Thompson Hine LLP. Bensman, Mooney and Rice even brought in other family members as investors.
From the start, the investment risks and potential rewards were high. Offering memoranda clearly state that Rx Remedy was a money-losing operation. Investor returns would come through the sale of part of the company or an IPO. Paul peddled a five-year plan, culminating in 2000, that would maximize the value of the company and then sell it off at a peak price.
Corporate consultant and investment banker Robert Mooney was among the early investors in Rx Remedy. "This was a completely legitimate, high-risk, private-company investment, with investor expectations that it could turn out very good or could be a total loss," he confirms. "But it had all the right paperwork and everyone knew exactly what they were doing."
Yet Mooney quickly distinguishes that investment from what happened to his Cashel account. "That was a totally separate investment," he states. "It had nothing to do with our Cashel accounts. This was a very small sum in relation to the dollars we're talking about now."
Durkin has stacks of documents piled on tables, shelves and the floor of his Westlake office that chronicle an impressive growth curve for Rx Remedy during the '90s. The company expanded its information base, developing a consumer panel that produced sophisticated marketing data. As the Internet blossomed, Rx Remedy moved online in a big way, establishing HealthScout, a news bureau that eventually posted 20 to 30 original health-related stories a day.
As the Internet bubble swelled in the late '90s, similar sites began generating huge numbers. DrKoop.com, which had less content than Rx Remedy but significant name recognition due to its association with former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop, went public in June 1999 at $9 a share. It produced $97 million in cash on a total valuation of $247 million. In an independent valuation done by SG Cowen in September 1999, Rx Remedy was valued at $70 million to $120 million without the information business (the database from the ongoing consumer panel), which was estimated to be worth another $40 million.
Paul, in fact, believed the company to be worth even more than SG Cowen's figures. In private conversations with investors, Paul speculated that the company could be sold for $400 million to $500 million.
Of course, no matter what the source, those figures were pure fantasy until and unless Rx Remedy went public or was sold. Still, Durkin argues, no matter how inflated it may appear now in the post-dot-com business climate, Rx Remedy's financial outlook was strong in the context of the built-to-sell business markers and measures of the late '90s.
In mid-1999, Durkin began moving Cashel clients more heavily into Rx Remedy. Early investors had bought stock, but in 1997, the company began offering 30-day demand notes.
A $30,000 investment, for example, would be repaid at the end of the month when Rx Remedy deposited $30,000 in an investor's account. The very next day, Cashel Management would yank the $30,000 out and send it back to Rx Remedy.
Why all the financial fancy dancing?
The bulk of Cashel clients' investments in Rx Remedy were in the form of 30-day notes, traditionally a type of loan. But Rx Remedy never had the wherewithal to pay down all of its outstanding notes nor was Cashel interested in using them as standard short-term loans. Instead, they were used as securities, building up investors' holdings in the company, giving them first call on profits from a sale or IPO, and holding Rx Remedy's financial feet to the fire.
Cashel investors held two types of 30-day notes: semipermanent and rollovers. Both earned 12 percent interest and, more importantly, warrants (nine per $1,000 principal annually) giving investors the opportunity to purchase Rx Remedy stock at a penny a share. Over time, this increased investors' ownership of the company and their share of the anticipated profits when Rx Remedy sold off assets or went public. The 30-day feature guaranteed that Cashel investors would be first in line when a big deal came down.
The rollover notes were never more than 33 percent (and sometimes as little as 10 percent) of the total. But they functioned as an important reminder, a monthly tap on the shoulder keeping Rx Remedy poised to pay off its investors. The intent was never to provide monthly returns; it was to put numbers on Rx Remedy's balance sheet that would keep the company focused on what it owed Cashel investors.
The pattern of money-in, money-out became a flash point when the investment turned sour, and was interpreted as check-kiting (in some lawsuits) or outright fraud (by federal prosecutors).
In effect, the demand notes were worth less than they appeared, since Rx Remedy never had the money to pay them all off at once.
Still, Durkin trusted his friend Paul's ability to strike the magic deal that would reward him and his clients. "Rx Remedy was top-shelf in terms of its capabilities, clients, the markets they were going after, the consultants they were using, the pedigree of its board of directors all very impressive," says Durkin. "On top of that, we knew the principal running the deal, his background and credentials and ability to pull off a deal like this.
"Once in a lifetime, if you're lucky, an opportunity like that comes along."
Throughout 1998, '99 and 2000, Paul was in discussions with a long list of potential business partners to invest in his company. Among others, according to Durkin, Paul talked to the Discovery Channel, Microsoft, Reuters and Intel.
Paul was also talking to firms that could help his company develop an IPO, such as SG Cowen and Wasserstein and Parella. In February 2000, he hired Pat Scrivens, a CFO with experience selling companies and taking them public.
Paul's actions seemed to indicate that Rx Remedy was on track with its five-year plan and headed toward the big payoff. Durkin and Orin monitored his progress, making 40-odd trips to meet with him in New York. Paul was also in Cleveland on a regular basis, to update individual Cashel investors.
An e-mail dated May 8, 2000, that Paul sent to one investor shows the extent of his optimism. "As you know," Paul wrote, "we are in the process of selling the Information Services business. We have now engaged five parties in serious discussion and expect to get down to one in the next few weeks. ... Our plan is to use the entire proceeds of the sale to pay down investor loans."
Durkin, too, had reason to believe a deal was being done. At one point, he says that Paul called him after a meeting in Columbus, claiming that the deal was on the cusp of being signed. As further proof, Durkin offers a proposed term sheet for a deal with IMS, a health-information spinoff of Dun and Bradstreet, that specifies a $40 million price tag for the information business.
The U.S. Attorney's office doesn't buy it. "There may have been some discussions," says Sammon. "But nobody had a check on the table or papers ready to sign."
And only the bottom line matters to Ed Larsen, a retired neighbor in Strongsville brought in by Orin. Larsen, 65, lost both his retirement account and the money he and his wife were living on.
Larsen originally agreed to a minor investment in Rx Remedy, but changed his mind in late 1999. "None of the predictions they made were coming true," he says. "So I told them to pull us out. I didn't find out until I got my statements later, but within the next week they essentially moved my entire portfolio into Rx Remedy.
"They replaced some of it after I talked to Tom. But they took it out again the next month. I finally had to go to National City Bank to cut off their access to my accounts.
"They knew we were giving them all we had," he says, "and they wiped us out."
Durkin maintains that he never refused a client's request to remove money from Rx Remedy.
Others continued to invest in Rx Remedy through the first half of 2000, according to Durkin. In April, Phil Ranney bought another 10,000 shares of Rx Remedy stock. In May, Robert Bensman invested another $500,000 in Rx Remedy notes. (Bensman had earlier been awarded 35,000 bonus warrants for maintaining his position in the company.) As late as August, both Durkin and Orin were still investing in Rx Remedy stock and notes for family members.
By April 2000, the stock market was in a tailspin and the Internet health-care market was one of the hardest-hit segments. DrKoop.com, for example, was near bankruptcy and trading at about $2 a share, 94 percent off its high. While this may strike some as ample reason to avoid pouring more money into Rx Remedy, Durkin bristles at the suggestion. Rx Remedy, he insists, was never a "losing dot-com company" as it was referred to in lawsuits and newspaper accounts. It was an information business that happened to have a Web site. Consequently, says Durkin, it would certainly have been affected by the market crash, but not to the extent that pure Internet businesses were.
Still, there were rumblings of discontent. Mooney, for one, felt that his family was too deep into Rx Remedy, and demanded to get out. In subsequent correspondence, he softened his position. "While I believe we have a good investment here, I am getting too much pressure [from family members] on these unsecured loans," he wrote.
According to Cashel records, Mooney's family received about $2.9 million of its $11 million principal back, plus another $614,000 in accrued interest. Family members also exercised their existing warrants for 68,000 shares of stock, and were awarded an additional 28,000 bonus warrants.
And Mooney got something no one else did: a $4.5 million guarantee in the form of personal cognovit notes, holding Durkin liable for that amount if the deal went sour. "I wanted to make Bob and his family feel comfortable," explains Durkin. "So I told him it was a good deal and I'll stand behind it. I gave him my security, my personal collateral." (Durkin says he recently sold his Westlake home for $525,000 and that some of the money went to Mooney.)
By the fall of 2000, Durkin was pouring dangerous amounts of his clients' money into Rx Remedy. Why? His actions can be traced directly back to a deal Paul made in May with Infospace, a major Internet connectivity and software company. The deal increased Rx Remedy's presence on the Internet from roughly 500 to 3,500 sites, ramping up the value of the company to a minimum of $175 million.
But it also effectively doubled Rx Remedy's operating expenses. Software that linked Rx Remedy to the new sites had to be distributed to all of the new carriers. Increasingly, Paul had come to rely on Cashel investors for nearly all of his operating funds, about $2.1 million a month. The Infospace deal blindsided Durkin with another $2.1 million a month in funding requirements.
"That accelerated the clock in terms of how much staying power we had," notes Durkin. "From May through November, we were faced with an additional $14 million in expenses that hadn't been anticipated or discussed. That would have bought us another seven months."
Still, Durkin chose to shovel in his clients' money, confident it was a short-term rescue that would be handsomely rewarded.
"We had reason to believe a deal was taking place," Durkin continues. "But we didn't sit on Paul to make it happen. In retrospect, I should have gone up there, parked myself on his door and made sure the deal got done."
Through October, Paul continued to reassure Durkin that the big payoff was imminent. Then, in mid-November, he called with disastrous news: The only offer on the table was a $4 million bid on the information business and a 20 percent share of the company.
After all the talk about hot deals, why couldn't Paul pull the trigger? He may be the only one who will ever know. In retrospect, it seems clear that he had taken on too much. Between running the company, searching for new investors and trying to broker sales and engineer an IPO, he was carrying a huge burden, complicated by the death of his father in October 2000. There is also speculation that, in the heat of the Internet craze, he became more enamored with building the value of his company than selling it.
"Paul may have been after the big enchilada," speculates Robert Rotatori, Durkin's defense attorney. "He was the majority shareholder and stood to gain more than anyone when and if a sale or public offering occurred. So you can attribute what he did to greed. Or he may have honestly believed that he had a big thing in hand and he wasn't going to let it go cheap."
Durkin was shaken by the news, but not for long. "That's not what we were led to believe or what we needed to hear," he notes. "But you can sit there and get mad and wallow in self-pity or you can say, 'What do we have to do next?' "
He managed to assemble $3 million in bridge financing and started looking for other business partners and sale opportunities. But investor outrage had peaked, particularly after Rx Remedy checks to his clients' accounts began bouncing in December 2000. About two weeks before Christmas, Durkin, Orin and Paul held a meeting with investors and their lawyers at the Cleveland Athletic Club, trying to stave off legal action until they had a chance to extract what value they could from the company. But the investors' patience had run out.
"I remember being surprised that Durkin, Orin and Paul didn't have their lawyers with them," says Patrick McLaughlin, the former federal prosecutor handling Mooney's lawsuit.
By the end of the month, there were two lawsuits filed and more on the way. On Dec. 20, Rx Remedy filed for bankruptcy, listing $85 million in debts to Cashel clients.
Durkin continued his attempts to keep some of the company's assets intact and sell them off, but had no illusions about his own firm.
"I knew that Cashel was finished in late November," Durkin says. "Once you have lawsuits threatened and a bankruptcy looming, a lot of clients are going to walk. I mean, legally we could have stayed in business. But once people have lost their trust in a business like we had, that's it. You're through."
On Jan. 2, 2001, Mooney filed a lawsuit alleging that the Rx Remedy investment was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme concocted to cover the personal investments of Durkin, Orin and Paul. It also named Tim Brennan and Kathy Brown, Cashel's secretary and receptionist, as defendants.
"From a lawyer's standpoint, I can't really fault it: You throw shit against the wall and see what sticks," says John O'Toole, Brennan's defense lawyer. "But from a personal standpoint, I was extremely upset with that lawsuit. Suddenly, Tim's involved, as is the secretary. Give me a break!"
As an officer of the company, Brennan realized he would be a target sooner or later, according to O'Toole. "Tim was a smart guy; he knew the score," he says. "I kept trying to say to him, 'Don't let it bother you.' But when you're on the hot seat, getting deposed, and you might have to go in front of a jury, and it may get in the paper ... I've been around these situations enough to know that people get crazy."
Brennan reportedly was also deeply worried about his financial situation. The father of four daughters, he had left Cashel when lawsuits started flying in December, taking a pay cut in his new job. With a protracted legal battle in the offing and his future uncertain, his world shrank to one final, desperate act on the night of Jan. 18, 2001.
"I was shocked," says Durkin, who heard the news of Brennan's suicide after returning to the office from a court hearing on one of the lawsuits. "Tim and I went to grade school and high school together, and roomed together for three years during college. We were each other's best man at our weddings. He was the nicest person that ever walked the face of the earth, and he'll always be my best friend."
Durkin shut down the office and went home. Brennan's family sent word for him to stay away from the funeral.
"I wonder if there's something else I could have said or done that would have made a difference," Durkin says. "We talked about a week or 10 days earlier and I tried to reassure him that our lawyers were taking care of us. But I'm still left with that feeling of 'Why didn't we talk one more time?' "
As the year progressed, the case against Cashel developed on two levels. Investors filed a growing stack of civil lawsuits, which fed the criminal investigation started by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office when banks reported that Rx Remedy checks were bouncing. Behind the scenes, Rotatori tried to persuade federal prosecutors that his client was guilty of bad business judgment, not deliberate fraud.
But it was a losing battle.
Durkin says he's still on good terms with about half of his former clients. "The half that didn't file lawsuits," he adds with a weak laugh. But he says he bears no animosity even toward the half who did file suit. "These are still friends and I like every one of them," he says. "I don't think they return that right this minute."
Durkin says he hopes after he's released from prison to right his wrongs in whatever way he can. If Durkin loses the civil cases filed against him which he assumes he will since he pleaded guilty to criminal charges the court will order him to pay back his former clients, plus damages. The government will allow Durkin to keep a set amount of money each year for living expenses (he doesn't know how much yet) and the rest will go to his clients. Though he will be legally obligated to do this, Durkin says he feels a moral obligation, too.
"People like Weakley, Larsen, [Sam] Ciocco, [Russell] Catanese even in Phil Ranney's case we put in more money than we should have," Durkin says. "I got carried away. It breaks my heart that I let these people down, and I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to them."
Durkin says the real enemy in this situation is the legal process that led and coached his clients to turn on him. He calls it "amoral, certainly unethical."
Yet he offers no such critique of his own actions.
The lawyers, claims Durkin, pushed for the case to become a criminal matter and tied his hands with lawsuits at the very moment he needed them fre