By Matthew Hendley
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By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
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Michael Pannos owed $1.8 million on the place, the Times of Northwest Indiana reported.
The reason Pannos' mortgage woes made the papers in Indiana was that he's a longtime Democratic political insider with at least a couple of troubling controversies to his name.
Michael Pannos was chairman of Indiana's Democratic Party from 1988 to 1993. In the 2000s, he became a political ally of East Chicago, Indiana's former mayor, Robert Pastrick, who would later be slapped with a $108 million judgment in federal court for allegedly running his city as a "criminal enterprise."
Pannos wasn't among the 24 defendants in the racketeering suit targeting Pastrick and his administration. But Pannos and another lawyer, Thomas Cappas, did complete a deal brokered by Pastrick that earned them millions of dollars — unfairly, and at the expense of inner-city residents, according to the Indiana Attorney General's Office.
The lawyers, with Pastrick's help, set up a for-profit company called East Chicago Second Century that received a cut of riverboat-casino money. From 1993 until the scheme was exposed in 2006, about $16 million in gambling revenue was funneled into Second Century.
Pannos and Cappas denied they'd squandered the money. The cash was supposed to be used to build affordable housing — and some of it may have been, according to published statements by Second Century's lawyer, J. Lee McNeely, who did not return phone messages left by New Times.
Thing is, nobody knows for sure what happened to that $16 million. Former Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter alleged in a 2010 lawsuit against Second Century that Michael Pannos, Cappas, and their families were "unjustly enriched," even if the scheme hadn't broken any laws.
A settlement with the Attorney General's Office shut down Second Century and distributed to the city of East Chicago $11 million that had accumulated since 2006, while another pending lawsuit against the company seeks to pry into its financial records and determine where the $16 million was spent.
Wherever it went, the money clearly didn't pay all of Pannos' debts. He lost three expensive homes, including the one in Enterprise, Nevada, to foreclosure in 2011.
Michael Pannos also has been criticized in recent years for his alleged role in a questionable, quarter-billion-dollar scheme to convert garbage into ethanol at a waste plant in Schneider, Indiana, which at one point was seeking public funds.
Pannos reportedly provided legal help for Earl Powers, one of the key businessmen behind the trash-to-ethanol plant.
But when Lake County, Indiana, officials heard in 2009 that Pannos — the former crony of the corrupt Pastrick — was linked to the plans, they "told Powers he could not involve Pannos in any way with the project," the Times of Northwest Indiana wrote.
Whatever the concerns of county officials in Indiana, investors and partners from South Korea, China, Germany, Greece, and Australia have considered doing business with the Pannos brothers and Matinee Energy.
From the company's amateurish website to its supposed partners, the more New Times learned about Matinee Energy, the deeper the rabbit hole went.
Numerous messages were left in recent weeks at various numbers for Christopher and Michael Pannos, but neither returned a call.
Matinee Energy's Tucson phone number's voice mail frequently was too full to take more messages.
The only one of the three founding partners who could be reached was Larry Knight — but he didn't shed much light on the situation.
"I've been out of this for over a year," Knight tells us. "I'm an extremely small stockholder."
The majority of Matinee Energy is now owned by new managers, he says.
So how did he get sidelined in his own company?
Knight only repeats that he "got out." He repeats that he doesn't know what's going on, then hangs up.
In its earlier years, Matinee Energy flirted with an idea to build "solar chimneys" that would rise a thousand feet above the desert and use updrafts to spin power-generating turbines. The concept isn't so far-fetched: A company now is building such a tower in the Mohave Desert that is set to be one of tallest structures on Earth when completed next year. It's touted to be able to power the equivalent of 100,000 to 200,000 homes.
Matinee's version, by comparison, adds a dash of crackpot: "floating" chimneys up to 1,600 feet tall, made of inflatable material and filled with helium. The technology is the brainchild of Greek inventor Christos Papageorgiou, whose ideas about floating solar chimneys, whether feasible or not, still are in the planning phase.
Papageorgiou responded in English to an e-mail inquiry, saying he has worked closely with Christopher Pannos and Knight since 2006 on floating-solar-chimney technology. Development has been stymied by a lack of funds, he says, but Pannos is "continuing his efforts to raise private capital or state or federal grants to fund the first demo of FSC technology in the USA."
Asked whether he'd heard of Pannos Mining, Papageorgiou says he never had the "opportunity or interest to research Christopher Pannos' past business activities." However, he added that he understood Christopher Pannos was "involved in oil drilling somewhere in the deserts of California" and tried to acquire real estate appropriate for floating solar chimneys.
In April 2010, Matinee announced publicly that it and two big-time Korean firms, Hyundai Heavy and LG Electronics, had agreed to build $1 billion worth of solar plants in the Southwest.