In a makeshift warehouse barroom, four men -- a couple of shills, an inside man, and a grifter -- stage a gun brawl to scare their mark off some loot.
In San Francisco's Financial District, a sentimental technology writer meets a Native American sweet-talker, a shaman in a banker's suit who conjures money from seemingly nowhere and builds projects few ever see.
This year's summer entertainment season is flush with stories about sharpies, and SF Weekly is taking this week's regular investigative news column space to review three of the best.
Last month, I began reading Marin County detective novelist Joe Gore's latest DKA Agency saga, Cons, Scams & Grifts, and like a mark at a shell game, I couldn't walk away. The novel rips through the aforementioned car-lot repo raid and delivers myriad subplots in which detectives, gypsies, cops, and robbers wangle their way through a shifting subculture of Old World rituals and modern-day cons.
The exciting film Confidence has been out for a while, but I didn't catch it until earlier this month. In the movie, cool-hand grifter Jake Vig (Ed Burns) steals a fortune from an accountant in the aforementioned bar brawl. The scam goes awry, and Vig's crew spends the rest of the flick conning hustlers less savory than themselves.
As good as these flimflammer fables are, SF Weekly's first-ever Sharpie Award for best tale of shiftiness goes to Po Bronson, whose What Should I Do With My Life? (Random House, 2003) gives the corner-shaving genre a Po-Mo (as in postmodern) twist. Bronson goes meta, assuming the persona of an author who has himself been conned.
Bronson disguises his saga as uplifting, maudlin Oprah Book Club fare, "an inspiring exploration of how people transform their lives and a template for how we can answer this question for ourselves," the jacket says. After profiling 52 inspirational people, in Chapter 53 Bronson ties up his book with the inspirational tale of Deni Leonard, a man with a gift for empowering native people with seemingly magical moneymaking abilities. But former associates, and the public record, suggest Leonard has something of a gift for questionable business practices.
In other words, it appears that Bronson wrote the ultimate chiseler's tale, one in which the author himself was snowed.
Bronson, also author of the popular books The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest and The Nudist on the Late Shift, says he researched Leonard over the course of several years; at one point he'd hoped to do a New York Times Magazine profile of him.
"I don't know that I got snowed," Bronson told me. "I traveled, I interviewed a lot of people; I felt I'd characterized what I'd seen accordingly in the book.
"Business in the hands of Deni is a sort of magic trick, as practiced by businesses everywhere. I know lawyers who use the law as a magic trick; I know politicians who use politics as a magic trick. In the book, I describe it as, he needed to learn the white man's way."
Bronson's book is presented as a sort of self-help tome in which he profiles 53 people who've found their "true calling." There's a minister who says he's overcome an anger-management problem, a Harvard business school alum who's a cop, and finally, in a chapter called "Magic Man," there's Deni Leonard, the aforementioned shaman in a banker's suit, who, Bronson seems to acknowledge, has taken a life path that's hard to describe.
"You're familiar with the term "parallel universe'? A parallel universe is in our midst, but we can't see it," Bronson writes. "Well, that's sort of like what Deni's up to. He's spawning an entire parallel economy, using sources of capital you didn't know existed, building factories and power plants you'll never see, on land and in neighborhoods you'll never go to."
Bronson continues with an uplifting profile of a man he describes as using mysterious business ideas to economically redeem his Native American people.
Judging from the text of his book, Bronson seems unaware of the Deni Leonard whom former associates, an attorney who represented Leonard, some Native American tribal leaders, and a voluminous court record describe as, at the very least, ethically challenged. This is the same Deni Leonard whose name was behind a bizarre proposal last year seeking to construct a $4 billion development on Treasure Island, and who was behind a highly suspicious failed development plan in the East Bay.
In the case of Deni Leonard, the story derived from the public record and interviews with former associates is a far more interesting tale than the inadvertently fictional account in Bronson's book.
Leonard, through spokesman John Mejia, said he did not wish to be interviewed for this column. Mejia subsequently asked me to submit a list of questions for Leonard, which I did. I had received no response by press time.
Mejia did say that Tom Burbank, whom he characterized as a disgruntled employee, had stirred up criticisms of Leonard. Burbank certainly appears to have an ax to grind; he has taken over a Web site that once offered information on a Leonard business, www.indigenousglobal.com, and filled it with criticism of Leonard's dealings. Leonard has attempted, so far without success, to obtain a restraining order against Burbank. Burbank, it seems, registered the site in his own name.
But there are others who criticize Leonard's way of doing business. To hear several of his former lawyers and associates tell it, Leonard has left a novel's worth of rubes holding the bag. "I know lots of people have been taken by him," says former Leonard associate Paul Faaola, a bulky, cheerful Samoan who used to hang with Leonard in the cafes of San Francisco's Belden Alley.
"I think our complaint speaks volumes," says John Daiza, a former Leonard associate who alleges in a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court that Leonard pressured him to conduct activities that would have exposed him to charges of securities fraud, then threatened him when he refused.
"He's a creditor accumulator," says Timothy Bratt, an attorney who represented Leonard against a claim that he'd failed to pay a moving bill, and who says Leonard then also stiffed him.
"He would get people investing in these projects these people would supposedly own, and the projects would fall apart," says former Leonard associate Burbank.
Leonard's business appears to consist primarily of proposing developments such as power plants and government-related construction projects, with the idea that investments would roll in. In a Dec. 6, 2001, press release, for example, Leonard announced that his company, Focal Corp., "has signed a revenue sharing agreement which transfers 25 percent of the net profit of the Cabazon Power Plant to Focal Corp. in exchange for equity and project development." In court filings, former Leonard associate Daiza says Leonard fraudulently solicited loans and investments, based on the idea he would build a power plant on land belonging to the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino County.
Tribal spokeswoman Nancy Tarascio told me she's unaware of any such proposed deal having existed.
"This is not the first time someone has inquired about this; people will ask, "Have you ever built that power plant?' I'm perplexed," said Tarascio, who then asked around the tribal office just to be sure. "I looked at [Cabazon Mission Legal Counsel Patrick Schoonover], and he gave me the rolled eyes. He said, "We don't go there with Deni Leonard.' We don't want to have anything to do with this guy."
Last year, in an excellent series of articles by reporter Glenn May, the Contra Costa Times described a multimillion-dollar urban redevelopment project in Pittsburg, Calif., that failed after questions arose about a backer. "The financial partner, San Francisco businessman Deni Leonard, had a long record of debts and outstanding lawsuits against him and his companies," wrote May, adding that Leonard sold shares in a shell company affiliated with the redevelopment deal to two Pittsburg planning commissioners.
City fathers rejected the deal after the publication of May's articles.
Perhaps the most peculiar of Leonard's adventures, and the one with perhaps the greatest sharpie-genre literary merit, involved a proposal backed by Leonard to seek development control over the former U.S. Navy base at Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island.
A consortium led by Democratic Party money men Darius Anderson and Ron Burkle and large residential builders Lennar Corp. and Interland Corp. ultimately won the rights to develop the estimated $4 billion mixed-use redevelopment project.
But officials involved in evaluating the bidding procedures are still scratching their heads about Leonard's entry, which they describe as one of the more haphazard submissions in response to a request for developer qualifications they've ever seen. The proposal raised the question, "What, exactly, are they doing here?"
Burbank, the fellow with the anti-Leonard Web site, is cited in minutes of the Treasure Island Development Authority as a partner in the Leonard-backed venture, known as Navillus Associates. He's quoted in the minutes as arguing that Leonard's company "be pushed through the process and be considered a second bidder."
"Even if we didn't get in there we could have loaded up on the subcontracts from the main bid and made a buttload of money that way," Burbank told me.
Unfortunately for the corner-shaving literary genre, Deni Leonard's Treasure Island bid never got past the request for qualifications stage.
Though the failure of the proposed Treasure Island deal and a subsequent defection of associates may constitute a setback for Deni Leonard the S.F. impresario, I don't believe those events diminish the Po Bronson chapter on Deni Leonard as a contender for this year's SF Weekly Sharpie Award. The plot depicted in that final chapter of What Should I Do With My Life? is just too rich, and the apparent deception too delicious, to ignore.
"Deni reinforced so many of the lessons I'd learned during my research. Patience, long-term planning, resilience. That when you embrace your true identity, you will discover a productive power you never imagined having ...," Bronson writes before concluding this way in his final chapter:
"I didn't know that I would meet so many wonderful people. I never expected how honest they would be with me."
And I never expected how easy it would be to bestow the first Sharpie.