BALTIMORE (CN) — Now you see me, now you don’t. The world’s largest independent energy exploration company says that’s what happened after it tried to claw back $1.3 million routed to the owner of a certified minority business enterprise because of an accounting goof.
ConocoPhillips details the odd caper in a federal complaint for theft and civil conspiracy filed Tuesday against Troy Holland and his company, HIC Energy Partners.
Back in 2016, according to the complaint, HIC brokered a natural-gas sale between ConocoPhillips and a third party called CenterPoint Energy Resources Corp. ConocoPhillips says it reached out to HIC this past June because its records showed an overpayment in the amount of $1,367,843.49.
Despite believing the money was owed to CenterPoint, ConocoPhillips allegedly routed the payment to HIC at Holland’s insistence.
On July 2 the payment went through, and on July 3 ConocoPhillips realized its error: “CenterPoint did not overpay ConocoPhillips and the $1,367,843.49 was a proper payment for sales unrelated to HIC Partners,” the complaint states.
H. Mark Stichel, an attorney for ConocoPhillips with the firm Astrachan and Gunst, declined to comment, citing a policy on pending litigation. The complaint meanwhile describes how Holland waited until July 5, a Friday, to send his first reply about the accounting error: “Ok I’ll take care of it Monday.”
But Monday came and went, and ConocoPhillips learned on July 8 that Holland had put a vacation away message on his email.
The company brought in the FBI a month later when all attempts at reaching Holland proved futile. Even the Twitter page for HIC Partners is no longer active.
In an affidavit filed with the complaint, a ConocoPhillips investigator who spent a decade with the U.S. Secret Service as a special agent describes his efforts to track Holland down.
“A review of addresses in ConocoPhillips contracts revealed locations that do not appear to be affiliated with HIC Partners or Holland,” Van M. Kasmiroski, manager of the company’s Lower 48 Security Program, wrote. “Multiple attempts have been made to reach Holland and an employee of HIC Partners … by telephone and a demand letter. Holland has not returned any calls or responded to the demand letter.”
Just a month before ConocoPhillips made contact with Holland about the supposed overpayment, HIC touted its recognition as best minority-owned energy supplier of the year by the an outfit called the Maryland-Washington Minority Companies Association.
“This is particularly encouraging this year as we launch our $100mm capital raise campaign for 2020,” Holland said in a statement at the time.
In fact, HIC’s corporate charter had been forfeited in 2017, two years after the company was founded. The phone number on the website goes to a voicemail.
ConocoPhillips brought a motion for expedited discovery on Wednesday.
“The defendants’ evasion of all attempts by ConocoPhillips to contact them raises the inference that the defendants are dissipating or hiding their assets,” it says. “ConocoPhillips has an immediate need for information about the payment, its whereabouts and the defendants’ assets in order to recover and protect the Payment.”
An attempt to reach Holland on the number he gave to ConocoPhillips led to voicemail Wednesday. Holland’s recorded voice is a resonant, reassuring tenor, like a radio DJ doing a fair impression of Barack Obama. He will get back to you.
A trip to HIC’s listed address is less reassuring.
The man behind the service desk at Eurotech BMW-Mercedes in Baltimore says his company has been there since the 1930s. It’s always been a car-repair shop, he says: There is, and has never been, a natural gas broker named HIC Energy Partners at this address.
The Maryland-Washington Minority Companies Association website lists an alternate address for HIC, on the other side of town, and a contact named Angela Marcos with a different phone number.
It rings. A man with an Obama-esque voice picks up on Nov. 13. He is evasive, at first hinting the caller has a wrong number, then listening with apparent interest as the reason for the call is explained. Turns out, the man used to know Troy Holland, “but I broke off ties,” he says. Asked his own name, he hesitates, stutters and finally says “Bobby.”
Asked how he knows Holland, Bobby says he will try to contact him and cuts the conversation short.
Bobby is no more forthcoming in a follow-up call the next day. “I don’t think this conversation is going to be very productive,” he says, after announcing he was not able to reach Holland. He refuses to explain how he knows the $1.3 million man and, when asked whether their voices sound similar, responds “no comment.”