Tong Soo Chung, a prominent South Korean lawyer and former public official, is behind an alleged fraud committed by Tucson's Matinee Energy solar company, a lawsuit maintains.
Our April 12 feature article on Matinee Energy explained why its highly touted plans to build a major solar-panel farm in Benson were probably nothing more than hot air. As we mentioned then: "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."
Now we may know the answer to the last question: According to the new lawsuit, Matinee Energy officials stole $1.6 million from JES Solar of Korea for the purported Benson project.
And if the lawsuit is correct, then Tong Soo Chung -- a well-known political and business figure in Korea -- was a key figure in that fraud.
Tong's a former Clinton Administration official, former counsel to South Korea's current president, Lee Myung-bak, and the former head of Invest Korea, the country's national investment promotion firm. Tong helped found the California law firm Lim Ruger & Kim, LLP, but is now based in Korea.
He did not return e-mails from New Times seeking comment. A New Times reader sent us a picture that purportedly shows Tong attending one of last year's bogus "ground-breaking" ceremonies in Benson. We can't confirm that's Tong in the picture; we sent it to Tong by e-mail and, again, he has not replied.
JES Solar, founded in Korea in 2007, states in its lawsuit (see below) that Tong's "presence and purported involvement" in Matinee Energy influenced JES' decision to advance $1.6 million to Matinee.
The money was supposed to give JES a partial ownership in what Matinee claimed would be a $160 million solar project. In reality, the lawsuit states, Matinee "lacked sufficient funds" to build the plant at all.
Matinee officials including Chin Kim and Paul Jeong led JES Solar to believe that JP Morgan Chase was on board to lend Matinee the capital it needed. At Matinee's October 2011 ceremony in a patch of desert in Benson, Chin introduced Tong Soo Chung as "Matinee's official agent for the Asia region."
At the ceremony, Chin "sobbed and hugged ... Tong and engaged in other theatrics to express their enthusiasm and gratitude for the solar plant project," the lawsuit states.
JES wants its $1.6 million back but is seeking a total court award of $4 million from Matinee.
It makes sense that someone with Tong's credentials might be be involved with Matinee -- after all, the company at one point had signed contracts with Hyundai Heavy, the world's largest shipbuilder, and KEPCO KDN, Korea's national IT company, for Arizona solar projects. Those deals, as our previous story explained, are now dead.
After Matinee began making excuses in November 2011 for its failure to secure the JP Morgan financing, JES began investigating Matinee, the lawsuit says. JES soon came upon our August 2010 article about Matinee Energy, which referenced Matinee Energy's connection to a gold-mining scam from the 1980s. No doubt, it would have been better to find that article before making the decision to give Matinee $1.6 million.
We'll keep you posted on how that lawsuit progresses. It's actually the second suit against Matinee in as many months. On July 31, Chinese solar-panel maker Lightway sued Matinee for $4.4 million in federal court in New Jersey.
Lightway says in its suit that it shipped 20 million watts of polycrystalline solar panels to a Tucson warehouse rented by Matinee but that Matinee never made an agreed-upon 10 percent down payment for them.
Worse, Lightway says Matinee sent it copies of cashier's checks for the down-payment, but immediately canceled the checks and took back the money before sending the actual checks. Lightway learned of the "fraudulent scheme" several months later. The storage costs alone for the panels was $300,000, which Lightway paid.
Lightway is seeking an award of $4.4 million plus damages, and the return of its panels.
Yet both JES Solar and Lightway may find it difficult to collect from Matinee.
Matinee officials have apparently fled town. The company's phone number has been disconnected.
The company was locked out of its posh office in the National Bank of Arizona complex on Wilmot Drive in Tucson a couple of weeks ago, says former Matinee employee Chita Stevenson.
The Tucson-area marketing professional, who worked for Matinee for about three months starting in May, says the company stiffed her out of more than $4,000 in pay.
Another former employee, Gabrell Felix, tells New Times that the company owes her about $700.
Matinee Energy appears to have ended up as South Korea's solar shame.
See below for lawsuits:
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.