Solar Firm Matinee Energy is Full of Hot Air
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.
No agreement has been made yet to hook up Matinee's potential electricity to existing power lines. The 120-megawatt solar farm site is 10 miles from a transmission line that could carry the power, and the firm hasn't begun the process to construct new power lines. Laying new lines would cost millions of dollars and take years to complete — not exactly a "cost-cutting" plan.
If Matinee were backed by heavyweight investors, its claims would have to be taken seriously.
But Matinee has no visible financial backing and won't talk about what major investors, if any, it has.
Matinee also refused to comment after the company was accused of lying by a major U.S. investment firm.
Ironically, for a company that claims to deal in sunshine, Matinee Energy prefers keeping the public in the dark.
These are the Wild West days of solar power.
With the public focused on renewable energy to ease the threat of climate change and reduce dependence on foreign oil, generating electricity from sunlight never has been more popular. Governments around the world offer significant financial incentives to solar projects of all kinds, and recent drops in prices for solar panels have helped make the technology more affordable.
The industry is going through a high-tech gold rush, as highly competitive companies jostle to provide a range of services, from residential rooftop structures to large-scale power plants.
Matinee is in the latter category, trying to position itself as a big-time player that will create jobs and bring enough sun-powered energy to power tens of thousands of homes.
Clearly, the firm, incorporated in Nevada in 2006, has invested several years and tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars in its Arizona proposals. Dozens of people have been involved in the plans, including — at times — representatives of well-known, reputable firms in the United States and Asia.
But Matinee hides the kind of information that other solar companies brag about. Though its officials claim to have built many solar plants it still owns, little evidence could be found to back up the company's bold claims about its capabilities, experience, and financial stability.
Information in records and from interviews with people familiar with the firm reveal — with a couple of notable exceptions — that Matinee has little hope of pulling off large-scale projects.
In early March, Matinee announced that it had teamed up with another low-profile company, Zentric Inc., to build the Benson solar-panel farm. The joint news release said Matinee had "awarded" Zentric an engineering contract that would have a construction budget of up to $444 million. The first 20-megawatt phase was supposed to be built entirely by Zentric in the next 12 months, with Zentric expecting a payment of $72 million from Matinee.
Which sounded great, except that Matinee or Zentric show little sign of having completed any project, of any kind, anywhere.
Zentric is a penny-stock company that must supply details about itself to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, so it's not quite the black hole of information that Matinee is.
Filings show Zentric as a would-be high-tech battery company that started doing business in 2007 as Constant Environment, a would-be manufacturer of "micro-climate" technology that could protect rare artifacts. Its president is William Tien, a Chinese self-described broker of financial deals for various tech projects. He lives in Australia, where Zentric apparently is based.
Tien also is head of Alpha Lujo, a firm that hopes to someday mass-produce Chinese electric cars. Neither he nor Jeff Mak, his CEO, report any experience in solar power or claim to have managed any other construction projects.
Yet these guys claimed in their published contract with Matinee, dated January 7, that they would "supply Matinee Energy with a turnkey photovoltaic installation" on the 900-acre site.
Tien's two companies are broke. Zentric's only assets are $252,000 in shares of Alpha Lujo's stock. Alpha Lujo, which was formed in 2006 as an online retailer using the now-defunct websites www.rsvpgiftbaskets.com and www.vitaminsnmore.net, owes $1.5 million to its investors.
Both companies are listed on the Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board, an SEC-monitored stock information and trading service. Their latest financial filings — from last fall — state that the companies are unlikely to continue as "going concerns" without an infusion of new capital.
New Times pressed Tien in e-mails to answer questions about the contract with Matinee Energy.
Just before press time, Zentric announced that it was pulling out of the Benson solar-plant deal.
In an April 4 letter from Tien to Matinee Energy, Tien wrote, "We sincerely regret this action but since we have been unable to arrange for sufficient financing in a timely manner to meet your deadline, we do not wish to create any further delays for Matinee Energy as you try to begin construction."
The letter, filed with the SEC, was followed by an Internet news release in which Tien stated, "We hope that in the very near future the parties will be in a position to re-evaluate their working arrangement."
Though this news clearly constitutes a setback, it's conceivable that Matinee could patch things up with Zentric or forge ahead with a new partner and investors.
The company already has made some progress toward its goals.
On March 6, the Benson Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-2 to approve a conditional-use permit for the solar farm, meaning the city agrees the land can be used for that purpose.
With this first step behind it, Matinee's plans have a long way to go before fruition.
The uncertainty about whether the projects will become reality has caused trepidation among several Benson-area environmentalists and nearby landowners, who worry about what the developments' effects on the area watershed would be. If there's no green-energy benefit, the land still could be altered in a way that affects water runoff and disturbs the surrounding area, property owner Donald Buchanan told the Benson Planning and Zoning Commission at a February meeting.
However, until 2009, the site was approved for a 20,000-unit housing development called Whetstone Ranch, a venture that went bankrupt. The solar site presumably wouldn't affect the property more than the housing development, which could be resurrected someday.
Mary McCool, director of the Community Watershed Alliance, told the commission on March 6 that her group didn't oppose the project but would keep an eye on it for potential problems.
The permit granted last month allows limited plant removal but no major grading or construction. Matinee has yet to apply for permits for the latter, nor has it applied for a use permit for its planned solar campus.
So far, taxpayer money isn't at play in Matinee's projects.
Matinee's solar-power plants would qualify for a federal 30 percent tax credit, but only if and when they're hooked up to the power grid.
The company's penchant for extreme secrecy makes it hard to tell what Matinee is really up to, why it reportedly has misrepresented itself, and who would lose money if its ventures fail.
Of all Matinee's problems, though, nothing seems to bode more poorly than the histories of two of its original founding members: Christopher Pannos, former head of Pannos Mining (shut down in 1988 for bilking investors out of millions of dollars), and his politically connected brother, Michael.
"Big Gold Scam," screamed one headline on the national news story in November 1988.
News articles, plus U.S. Federal Trade Commission records, help tell how Christopher Pannos, along with another now-deceased brother, James, and their associates, sold shares in a bogus gold mine just north of Wickenburg to thousands of people.
These were no ordinary con artists; the fraud was sophisticated, well-funded, and one of the most notorious of its kind. Pannos Mining made many false filings with the Maricopa County Recorder's office, filings that still can be found on the county's website under recorder.maricopa.gov. The firm contracted with 18 boiler-room telemarketing companies across the country to sell the shares. Victims were told they were buying interests in the high-grade ore coming from the mine and that they'd be paid back later in processed gold bullion that would be worth more than their initial investments.
An 89-year-old priest sank $5,000 into the scheme, consumer advocate David Horowitz reported. A story from Illinois mentions how 21 people there invested $118,000 together. Nationwide, there were many more such victims.
Investigators tested the dirt at the site of the alleged gold mine — the samples contained no gold or silver ore.
A cease-and-desist order shut down Pannos Mining and its boiler rooms. The Pannos brothers were punished for their leading roles in the scam, agreeing to a judgment against them of $2.4 million. Less than $7,000 of that has been paid, FTC records show. The judgment never expires.
If Matinee Energy manages to make money for Christopher Pannos, he may well get a knock on his door from people demanding a return on their gold-mine investments.
Whatever Christopher Pannos has been doing for the past 24 years, he seems to enjoy starting new corporations in Nevada. Current records show that he's been an officer in 16 of them since the mid-1990s. None of the corporations appears to have been a viable venture, since none has Internet presence.
Archived records obtained from the Nevada Secretary of State's Office for this article show that Matinee Energy was formed in fall 2006 by Christopher Pannos and Nevada resident Larry Knight, who's listed as a past or present officer in 18 corporations.
Knight listed his address as a 2,000-square-foot home at 2920 Candelaria Drive in Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. Christopher Pannos, meanwhile, said his address was 5646 West Agate Avenue in Enterprise, another Vegas suburb. Both addresses have been used by Matinee Energy on various websites and in news releases, and both have been used in papers filed by many other Nevada corporations registered by the pair, such as Matinee Oil, Matinee Development-Flagstaff, Renewable Energy Marketing, and the intriguingly named Oopha Land 3.
Most of the pair's companies have had their corporate statuses revoked, or are in default, for failing to file timely updates.
Not an impressive track record.
But the question of who's behind this wanna-be solar company gets even more interesting with the addition of brother Michael Pannos.
He became Matinee Energy's third principal in January 2010, records show. But he'd always had a link to the firm: Matinee's Agate Avenue address, a residential mini-mansion of 7,000 square feet that once fetched prices of more than $1 million, was owned by Michael Pannos from 2005 until a foreclosure sale in October 2010.
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.
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.
Such feelings may be understandable, to some extent. In December, a group of 25 solar companies in the United States and Europe filed a trade complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission alleging that Chinese firms, with the backing of the Chinese government, had dumped low-cost solar panels into the market.
However, the complaint was filed because Chinese firms haven't been shy about getting into the U.S. solar market.
The Asian representatives of Matinee, though, are Korean, not Chinese.
These representatives always have seemed nervous about their connection to the Pannos brothers, at times appearing "physically uncomfortable" with the brothers in meetings, Graves says. He says he doesn't know why the Koreans chose to do business with the Pannoses in the first place.
Over the past nine months, he says, the Koreans — including Matinee's new president, Chin Kim — appear to have taken control of the company.
In 2011, Graves says, the firm didn't seem serious about moving ahead on the deal and failed to do "due diligence" in preparing to buy his property. He wouldn't provide details, saying only that things just weren't "jelling." He says he asked Matinee to pay him a $100,000 non-refundable deposit as earnest money.
The company stalled, but Chin Kim finally cut him a check. Matinee continued to act flaky, Graves maintains, so he gave back the firm's money, saying he wanted a "clean break."
The Korean representatives pressed him to keep the deal floating and later gave him another $100,000 check, which Graves kept.
The Koreans always had been part of the company, Graves says Christopher Pannos later told him.
Solar makes sense for his property, whether or not Matinee is behind the project, Graves insists. He shrugs off the power company's comments to New Times that the nearby transmission lines aren't big enough for the project and that no one has agreed to buy the power, if it is produced.
"There are other transmission lines, other possibilities," he says. When asked what those are, Graves has no answer: "I guess you'll have to draw your own conclusions."
Graves is hedging his bets: He plans to operate a separate natural-gas-powered electricity-generation plant on his land that could produce anywhere from 40 to 450 megawatts of power 24 hours a day to augment the power generation from the solar panels.
He vows to "bring someone else in" to construct a solar plant if the Matinee deal falls through.
It seems wise to plan for Matinee's collapse. Indeed, the would-be energy company already has tried and failed to put a solar plant on Paragon Ranch, a mix of state and federal land near the Navajo Nation. The Hyundai Heavy deal appears kaput — there's no mention of it on any of Matinee's websites. Hyundai Heavy gave conflicting answers to business reporters last year as to whether the deal was still on and didn't respond to New Times' inquiries by press time.
The Benson conditional-use permit application and engineering paperwork by Matinee shows KEPCO KDN as its partner in the solar-farm project.
The name certainly lends the project credibility, because it happens to be the technology division of South Korea's national public utility.
But a representative of the national utility, reached by phone in South Korea, tells New Times that KEPCO KDN no longer is part of any Matinee Energy project.
Representatives of the Korean company came to Arizona in December to discuss a role in the potential solar farm, the company confirms, but KEPCO KDN has no plans to get re-involved. The spokesman refused to elaborate.
At this point, Matinee seems to have lost its ties to major firms.
Its now-former partner, Zentric, has a mailing address in Scottsdale. The address belongs to the tiny Scottsdale Airpark office of Eastbridge Investments, owned by Valley resident Norm Klein, who also is Tien's business partner in the Alpha Lujo electric-car shell company. Klein's business has been trying to help Asian companies go public in the United States, reporting on its website that it has several deals in the works.
Klein referred questions about Zentric to William Tien, president of Zentric and Alpha Lujo, who confirmed that his company holds the engineering contract for the 120-megawatt solar farm on Graves' land.
"The whole project is funded by third-party reputed institutions that we have helped [bring] in," he says.
He signs off, "We welcome any future inquiries on the Benson solar project."
On April 2, New Times sent him a list of specific questions — such as how a development-stage battery company without many assets could build a large solar facility — but Tien never responded. Two days later, he announced that Zentric was no longer part of the Benson project.
Matinee Energy leases 9,400 square feet in the National Bank of Arizona office complex at 335 North Wilmot Road in north Tucson. The sparsely furnished, second-floor suite has been inhabited by the company for about six weeks when it agrees to a February 23 interview. Five people can be seen working there, including the receptionist.
David Lee, an Asian man in his 50s, leads New Times to a conference room. Lee says he's from Matinee's "corporate general administration" but declines to state his title with the firm.
Lee then notes that Matinee Energy has closed its "corporate office" in Henderson. It's unclear whether he means Knight's home or the mailbox at a virtual office in Henderson that Matinee used for a time.
"We moved to New York and San Francisco," Lee claims. The Tucson location "is a satellite office, actually."
Lee declines to reveal the addresses of the New York or San Francisco locations. His excuse is that the company doesn't want people to "burn gas" going to the new locations.
Matinee owns and operates 15 solar plants in Europe and Asia, Lee maintains. But he won't disclose the locations of those facilities, either.
"We don't want to give people too much information and send people out [to those facilities]," he says. "Let's not get too deep into it."
Asked why not, Lee gets up and writes on a board: "sustainable competitive advantages."
He lectures, "All the secrets, we put them out there — what advantage do we have? If you're going to have everything discussed, we are taking clothes off, [are] naked, and saying, 'Hey, come and get me.' We don't want to do that."
If the company revealed its partners, he says, other solar companies would try to steal the partners — or a partner might try to compete with Matinee.
Lee is asked whether the Pannos brothers still have a role in the company.
"Based upon records, none — no," he says. As mentioned, the most current corporate records on file in Nevada and Arizona still show Michael Pannos as a "director" of the firm.
When New Times persists in asking questions, Lee angrily terminates the meeting.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.