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Gold Rush: Soaring Prices, Unscrupulous Precious-Metals Dealers, Right-Wing Paranoia -- We've Been Down This Yellow-Brick Road Before

Like many gold sellers, Republic Monetary Exchange LLC focuses much of its advertising on conservatives.

While many businesses bend over backward to avoid offending people, the firm's chief executive, Jim Clark, wears his right-wing politics — literally — to basketball games.

Late in the afternoon one day in mid-June, Clark was eager to talk about how he got booted from a Phoenix Suns game on May 5 because of his anti-illegal-immigrant T-shirt.

The two-year-old company at 4040 East Camelback Road deals in gold, silver, and platinum; visitors and customers have to be buzzed through a security door. Clark, 57, is a native Arizonan and the firm's chief executive. He's dressed in a suit with a loose-fitting tie.

Looking out of place, dozens of orange T-shirts that read "Viva Los 1070" are stacked on a folding table near the front desk. Clark's been hawking them on the Internet.

"It wasn't planned," he begins. "We were sitting behind the Spurs bench."

He runs through the story: During a home game against San Antonio, Clark and a friend sat in front-row seats, each wearing shirts with the politically charged statement. The shirts both supported SB 1070, Arizona's new immigration law, and mocked the Suns' temporary switch to "Los Suns" jerseys in protest of the legislation.

Security guards asked the pair to take off their shirts or turn them inside out. They refused and were escorted out of US Airways Center. Clark, ever the salesman, persuaded a security manager to let them back in — with their message intact.

The incident was picked up by news outlets and bloggers nationwide, and Clark made sure to mention his business, creating plenty of free advertising for him.

The stunt worked so well that Clark began selling similar T-shirts on the Internet.

Clark was infamous from the latest incident. But he and his business associate, Sherman Unkefer, became something much worse after they ran gold and silver scams in the 1980s and 1990s, and failed to pay millions of dollars in restitution.

Court records detail the trails of tears of hundreds of victims. Though the cases are decades old, they remain fresh in the minds of the fleeced — and in civil court filings over the past few years.

Margaret Viall of Bakersfield, California, for example, is still trying to collect on a $3.5 million judgment against Clark and another of his associates, Gene Hutchins. The award stems from the financial meltdown of North American Coin and Currency Ltd., a large, Phoenix-based precious-metals firm that went belly-up in 1982.

In those days, gold prices were setting records and fueling imaginations, just as they are now. Silver wasn't doing badly, either. North American was one of the top dealers in the United States, moving an estimated $400 million in metal each year. But like the market itself in the early 1980s, the company crashed hard. Mismanagement and fraud drove North American Coin to file for a liquidation bankruptcy, and that's when its customers learned the hard truth.

People across the country had trusted the Phoenix firm to store their gold or silver safely, but it turned out that at least $16 million in metals had been either sold out from under them or never purchased at all.

Investors who acquired the company after it filed for Chapter 11 reorganization couldn't save it, and North American disappeared.

Unkefer, the company's president, was sentenced in 1988 to 10 years in prison and is still on the hook for $7.1 million in restitution.

Clark, North American's vice president, secretary, and treasurer until late 1981, escaped indictment (though not a $3.5 million court judgment) in that one.

But in 1993, Clark was prosecuted for selling unregistered securities at his own Phoenix firm, Sheffield Metals, and served eight months in prison. Many former Sheffield customers were disappointed by the light sentence; one victim wrote the court that Clark ought to be "hung from the nearest tree." He was banned from owning or operating a metals-trading firm until his probation ended in 2006.

By that time, court records show, he had paid back just $42,000 of his $1.5 million court-ordered restitution.

Sitting in a small conference room at his current business office, Clark tries to maintain a friendly countenance when the conversation turns to uncomfortable matters. Clark denies that Unkefer helped provide about a third of the start-up funds for the company two years ago. But he admits, somewhat sheepishly, that Unkefer's wife's trust provided the capital. He quickly adds that Unkefer "has no ownership in the company."

The distinction isn't clear, since Unkefer's wife, Sharon, died in August 2008, two months before the company was incorporated.

Sherman Unkefer's role in the company appears to have been hidden deliberately in corporate records.

Clark tells New Times that he wants to talk to his lawyer before going on with the interview and that maybe he'll meet with the paper at a later date.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.