“It’s tremendous,” the Hon. George Pataki said at a party last year, standing inside a brand-new, 36-foot geodesic dome. It had just been built for a biodegradable plastics company named Perf Go Green, whose board he’d joined the previous spring. There was artificial grass on the ground and music from instruments called the drum orb and earth harp.
A few months earlier, the former New York governor’s picture was featured in penny-stock promotions pitching the company: Emails said that buyers could make millions. But a spokesman told the Post then that Mr. Pataki hadn’t known about them, and the scandal didn’t last long. “I’m honored to be a part of it, particularly standing here in this Earth Dome,” he said to the crowd at the party, with one arm in the air. “It is just terrific.”
The company did not do so well. Last month, according to S.E.C. filings, Mr. Pataki resigned from Perf Go Green’s board, along with his longtime associate Charles Gargano, the former Empire State Development Corporation chairman, and the get-rich author David Bach.
Two weeks later, its chief executive, Anthony Tracy, left, too. “There’s really nothing left of Perf Go Green,” Mr. Gargano said from Palm Beach. The company, whose stock rose above $3 after he and Mr. Pataki were named to its board, was trading at $.05 earlier this week.
But the former governor has already moved on to another over-the-counter stock. This month, exactly a week after Perf Go Green’s CEO stepped down, Mr. Pataki was named to the advisory board of Mesa Energy Holdings, a natural-gas exploration company focused on a New York section of the Marcellus Shale, a gargantuan gas-bearing rock.
If post-gubernatorial life is supposed to be relatively tranquil, the world of penny stocks is not. They are avoided by serious investors because of thin trading and low share prices, which leave them open to manipulation. S.E.C. investigations are commonplace. In the two weeks since Mr. Pataki joined Mesa, two brightly colored promotions touting his involvement have been making the rounds. “Urgent,” says one. “You can profit from America’s New Energy Revolution. Discover how Mesa Energy Holdings could skyrocket 545% in the next 12 months.”
“Even former New York Governor George Pataki,” says the other, “has been leading the charge.”
PERF GO GREEN HOLDINGS began life as a company that set out to provide help to non-English-speaking Hispanic people in North Carolina, S.E.C. filings say, “but it did not establish operations in connection with its business plan.” The retooled firm went public in May 2008, offering products like 16-Gallon Extra Tall Kitchen Trash Bags and Kitty Litter Pan Liners.
“When consumers purchase a Perf Go Green product, they will be making a conscious decision to better the environment,” Mr. Tracy, the CEO, said then.
When Mr. Pataki joined the board at the end of that month, he got options to buy one million shares at half a dollar each, less than a quarter of its price then. A few weeks later, the Post article about the promotions was unflattering and cinematic. The paper said that the company’s CFO had done accounting for the Teamsters and that its chief operating officer, Michael Caridi, had “dabbled in real estate, concrete, security services and ship salvaging.”
It left out that Mr. Gargano, who became a Perf Go Green director a few days after Mr. Pataki, and was given options to buy 200,000 shares at half a dollar, had been profiled as a serial penny-stock board member in The New York Times. “While it is not illegal for someone to lend his prestige to a tiny, troubled company, it is unusual for someone with an important government position to do so,” the paper wrote in 2002, rattling off his connections to a golf-club maker that distributed Korean nasal sprays; an electrical-equipment distributor that shifted into an Eastern European health clinic operator; and a firm that tried to put James Dean’s likeness on socks.
“And it remains unclear,” The Times said, “why Mr. Gargano would be willing to risk his reputation by becoming involved in shaky companies.”
“Didn’t mean crap to me,” Mr. Gargano told The Observer this week about that article. “Every once in a while, someone would come to me. I’d either make an investment or maybe not, or be involved somehow, but they meant nothing to me.”
But what if the companies’ stock traded over the counter for a few dollars, or less? “There might have been some penny stocks. Of course! So what,” he said. “If I wanted to get involved with a couple of penny stocks because of people I knew, so be it. That’s my prerogative.”
At Perf Go Green, he knew Mr. Caridi, the chief operating officer. Reached at the company’s office this week, the executive said he, a secretary and a holding company were all that was left, though a spin-off of the company’s battery-product division will be announced soon. Mr. Pataki, he said, had been very helpful. “He was always very concerned and caring,” he said, “and always wanted to see the company succeed.”
“As board members, we did everything possible to give our advice for how the company could not only survive but better itself,” Mr. Gargano said. “We just got caught at a time when the economy really dropped severely.”
THE TWO ARE NOT the only political leaders who have dabbled in penny stocks. Four years ago, for example, the retired general and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark joined an energy and security firm called ViaSpace. He left two weeks later after complaints about the firm’s online stock promotions. That company has traded below $.02 since late January.
After Mr. Pataki’s appointment to Mesa Energy Holdings this month, two stock promoters wrote gushingly about the natural-gas company and its new adviser. “I don’t own this stock,” one of them, Harris Roen, said this week. “I didn’t want to be accused of pump-and-dump.”
The other report was from Jarret B. Wollstein, whose Web site says he’s an investment newsletter publisher, a Mensa member and a geopolitical writer who has predicted major terrorist attacks. “Mesa Energy (MSEH) is on track for potentially huge profits-becoming my next 809% stock winner,” he wrote. “Invest now and you could turn $10,000 into $90,900 in just 8 months.”
At the bottom of the Web page is a link to a disclaimer that says he received $5,000 for the report from a group named Northbound Marketing, which in turn was paid by one or more Mesa shareholders “who may or will sell shares of the feature Company at or about the time of this report.”
Yesterday, Mesa CEO Randy Griffin said he doesn’t know which shareholders hired the marketer, but that he was not overly worried about it. “There are a significant number of shareholders out there,” he said.
This month, his company’s stock price has gone up to around $3, the same mark that Perf Go Green hit after Mr. Pataki joined. It was below a dollar earlier this year. “As far as his involvement in our company goes, I would have to say I was a little surprised and certainly pleased that something we’re trying to do is something he recognized and wanted to get involved in,” Mr. Griffin said. He would not discuss the governor’s compensation, but said it would be disclosed shortly.
Mr. Pataki did not respond to questions sent through a spokesperson about why he has gotten involved in penny stocks, and why he went so quickly from one to the other.
“I always tell people when they get on a board to make sure that D&O policies are paid up, because you can spend everything you made on your lawyers,” said the law professor and former S.E.C. senior attorney Peter Henning, referring to directors and officers liability insurance. “You get dragged into an S.E.C. investigation, oh God, the dollar figures are just going to go through the roof.”
Meanwhile, the plastic company’s 36-foot dome is sitting in storage in Hollywood, Calif. “We created this Earth Dome for them and they did not pay their bills,” said a representative for Luxe-Media, which produced it. “Our experience with Perf Go Green was very bad.”