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On a sunny, late-winter day in the southeast Arizona desert, a dozen people gathered on a dusty piece of land off Interstate 10 to celebrate the "ground-breaking" of a major green-energy project.
Excitement was in the air as the Asian representatives of Matinee Energy, a relatively unknown firm, made its pitch to elected officials and local-business boosters in attendance. The company's planned solar installations promised to bring money and jobs to Benson, a town 45 miles east of Tucson that's home to about 5,000 residents and the world-famous Kartchner Caverns.
Looking back on the February 15 event, one of the boosters, George Scott, says he thought it was "a little odd" that no members of the press had been invited.
After all, this was the second of two "ground-breakings" Matinee had held in Benson since December, and the company seemed poised to become one of the biggest solar players in the Southwest.
But, as it turns out, "odd" is Matinee Energy's hallmark trait.
Scott, who had responded to a flyer sent to his organization, says a Matinee employee told him that the company had made an "internal decision" not to invite journalists.
Had he or other locals Googled Matinee Energy after getting the invite, they almost immediately would have seen an online article published by New Times on August 16, 2010, with the headline: "Matinee Energy Official Pushed Gold-Mine Scheme in 1980s, Now Behind $700 Million Solar Deal With Hyundai Heavy."
The article describes how Christopher Pannos — a founder of Matinee Energy and (then) listed as one of three principals in the firm, along with brother Michael and Nevada resident Larry Knight — was a key member of a sophisticated scam known as Pannos Mining. According to news reports and Federal Trade Commission documents, Pannos Mining stole millions of dollars from investors, promising them gold from a mine in Arizona. It turned out there really was no gold in them thar hills.
Now, Pannos has a renewable-energy company that seeks investors and says its projects will employ hundreds of southern Arizona residents.
Matinee claims in its literature that it will build a multimillion-dollar "solar campus" research facility on the 50-acre site near a Denny's restaurant that taps into a "huge solar-energy-collection infrastructure nearby." A prime focus of the facility, says the company, will be to manufacture "cost-cutting" mounting systems for solar panels.
The "huge" solar structure is another planned Matinee project several miles away — a photovoltaic-panel solar farm on 900 acres of private land just east of State Route 90. It's projected to be one of the largest such plants in Arizona, with an electricity output of 120 megawatts during peak sunlight hours. One megawatt (1 million watts) of electricity can power between 500 and 1,000 homes.
Because of Matinee's decision to exclude the press, no reporters were snooping around the February ceremony, asking embarrassing questions about the Pannos brothers, the firm's alleged $1 billion Hyundai Heavy deal (which also was said to include two large-scale solar farms in southern Arizona), or another Matinee solar project for the Navajo Nation that fizzled in its planning stage.
Ron Brooks, a Benson city councilman, attended the ceremony and says he's "enthused" about the possible benefits of Matinee's projects. He admits that he didn't know anything about the company before receiving the flyer about the event but says he wanted to lend the firm's ideas his support.
The Pannos brothers were nowhere to be seen at the Benson ceremony.
But the Asian representatives of Matinee and its business partners, especially S. Chin Kim, the chief executive officer of Matinee, and "Dr. J.K. Kim," CEO of Greenstone System of California, were "dynamic speakers," says Marc Washington, executive director of the Benson Chamber of Commerce, who also had gotten the flyer.
Washington shook some hands and posed for a photo wearing one of Matinee's white hard hats.
"They have some grand plans for Benson," Washington says. "I was very impressed. The presentation was outstanding, especially for a little community."
Afterward, the company put out news releases about the event with a picture of the hard-hat-wearing group of local boosters and company reps holding shovels.
The company had hosted a similar, though smaller, ceremony on December 29 for the planned 120-megawatt solar farm, also followed by a news release and photo. That news release, distributed widely on solar news and business sites, was headlined: "Matinee Energy Starts Construction of the Solar Power Plants in Benson, Arizona."
The release went on: "The ground-breaking signaled and came after making substantial progress with permitting, sales agreements, interconnection, land acquisition, project financing, and securing substantial solar modules."
In fact, the first of many permits required for the project wasn't approved until March 6.
And as of press time for this article, it looked as though Matinee Energy still hadn't closed any deals to acquire land for either Benson project.
Matinee calls this "progress." But, with no property or building permits in hand, both "ground-breakings" were premature.
Even more strangely, officials with the local Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, which won awards for its use of renewable energy, say they decided late last year not to buy the power generated by Matinee Energy.