By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
That and subsequent news releases by Matinee were picked up widely by solar-power information sites.
Yet, for some reason, Christopher Pannos and Larry Knight soon were squeezed into minimal roles in their own company just when it seemed to have hit the jackpot.
That October, new records were filed that showed Michael Pannos as the president and director, and Knight bumped down from managing member to secretary and treasurer. Christopher Pannos no longer was listed as a manager or member, though he reportedly still owns part of the firm.
The April 2010 news release contained a prominent quote from Michael Pannos, saying the "engagement of J.P. Morgan Securities, Inc., to help with the permanent project finance segment of the project has finalized Matinee's total financing solutions for those projects."
Not true, says J.P. Morgan.
The venerable U.S. securities firm tells New Times, "J.P. Morgan neither provided financing nor committed to provide financing to Matinee Energy and have no plans to finance the company in the future."
Another troubling sign that Matinee Energy is a poser comes from one of Matinee's apparent business partners, California consulting firm Metroby, which has been in contact with the town of Benson in recent months about the solar projects.
Until February, Metroby's amateurish website, as suspiciously generic and vague as Matinee's several sites, listed its "partners" as Matinee Energy, a law firm, and Lucas Capital Management, a prominent investment firm from New Jersey.
When New Times called Lucas Capital last month for information, a representative said the company never has even heard of Metroby, much less made any deal with it.
A few days later, Metroby removed Lucas Capital's logo and any reference to the New Jersey company from its website. When New Times called Metroby for a comment, a woman who would only identify herself as "Jean" said the company "would be happy to answer any questions" but only by e-mail. The company has not responded to New Times' e-mailed inquiries.
In August 2010, another Matinee news release made a splash in the world of solar news: Hyundai Heavy was said to have "won" a $700 million contract to build large-scale solar-power plants in Cochise and Dragoon, both small towns in southeastern Arizona. This supposedly was to be part of the previously announced deal to build 900 megawatts worth of plants in Arizona and other states with Hyundai Heavy and LG Electronics.
New Times reported the announcement, then followed up the next day with the blog post about Christopher Pannos' connection to the bogus gold mine. Matinee vice president Chris Cornell said Christopher Pannos wasn't an employee of the company, though his name still was in corporate records at the time.
The status of this Hyundai Heavy deal is unclear. Hyundai Heavy's public-relations department said weeks ago that it would respond to questions about it but did not return several e-mails and phone calls. LG also did not return calls about the deal.
By March 2011, Matinee's leadership had churned again. This time, Nevada records were updated to show Chin Kim as president and treasurer and Michael Pannos and Young Yoo as directors. The company listed the same lineup in Arizona Corporation Commission records filed in September 2011.
The new crew has done little to improve the company's public credibility.
Rancher Ernie Graves, a longtime resident of Benson, wants to sell 1,200 to 1,500 acres to Matinee Energy for its solar farm.
Graves is a big part of why Matinee's projects have been so warmly received by Benson officials. For years, he's worked with the Benson City Council and town employees on various development ideas.
In 1993, Graves bought 15,000 acres of desert just east of State Route 90, south of Interstate 10. Twelve years later, at the height of the housing boom, he pulled the trigger on an ambitious plan to build a 20,000-unit housing development. Pulte Homes soon got involved with the plan known as Anthem at Whetstone Ranch. But by mid-2007, the whole thing had gone bust, and Whetstone Development, Graves' company, filed for Chapter 11. The company still owes about $11 million to the National Bank of Arizona from loans (including about $1 million in fees for late payments), records show.
An acceptable offer from Matinee, on the land it needs for the solar plant, would help Graves pay off the money he owes.
"We would like to sell some land to Matinee or some other investor or user," he acknowledges.
Matinee called Graves near the end of 2010, he relates. It was the "Pannos boys, Larry [(Knight], three or four other people. They had an investment group with them."
Graves is Matinee Energy's most ardent defender, though even he has qualms about the way it has done business.
"I've seen things that make me think it's legitimate," he says. "I've definitely witnessed the million-plus dollars being spent."
He also says he's met "30-plus" people from Matinee and its group of partners — mostly people from Asian countries, but some from the Middle East.
"Matinee keeps its partners in the dark," he says. "They don't all know each other."
In meetings with the would-be solar moguls, Graves says, he's sometimes been "scolded for asking simple questions" about the company and its plans. Graves believes the people behind Matinee and its partners are secretive because they're "paranoid" about anti-foreign, anti-Asian sentiment.