Shaun Lee discusses his business plans, with contagious enthusiasm that can grip a listener. Despite his gruff manner, mussed hair and, at times, an excited stutter, Lee expresses huge dreams with overbounding optimism. The 39-year-old entrepreneur says he expects sales at Element Service Inc., his El Segundo-based heating and air conditioning business, to reach $24 million in 2008, a huge increase over the more than $3 million made this year. The Manhattan Beach resident’s cramped office, with two fold-out tables serving as a desk, suggests frugality. His answering of phone calls and signing of checks between a reporter’s questions suggest a single-minded focus on business. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan ClarksonHowever, a nearly $400,000 civil judgment for fraud against Lee about a year ago raises questions about whether future investors in his company will be able to trust him or his firm’s financial statements. Lee’s past legal trouble and current plans to go public illustrate a larger dilemma facing investors: In the post- Enron era, how does one know whether to trust a company and its management? “Usually you have to dig,” said Agus Harjoto, an assistant professor of finance at Pepperdine University. “You have to contact investment bankers or somebody who has had close business with the company to know if the company is OK. You can contact the suppliers or clients as well.” For anyone wanting to invest in Lee’s company, former client Stephen Weinman is eager to share his experiences. “Believe me, this guy put me through years of agony,” said Weinman, 52, who won last year’s judgment against Lee and his consulting firm. “It gravely concerns me that this man is taking a company (public).” Weinman, who owns a Marina del Rey boat repair business called Dock 77, described Lee as “very charismatic.” “He’s good. He talked me into it,” said Weinman, a Venice resident. What Weinman was talked into involved giving $341,044.61 to Tydy Inc., a Marina del Rey consulting firm Lee ran. It was 2004 and Weinman wanted to purchase a San Pedro boat repair business called Sunrise Marine Services Inc. When Lee took his boat to be serviced at Dock 77, Weinman mentioned his intention to buy the San Pedro firm. “I told him about it,” Weinman said. “And he said, `I can do the memorandums of understanding. I can appraise the business. I can get the contracts done. I can do all this. This is my area of expertise. I have done this in the past.’ And I said this is my guy.” Weinman mortgaged his house to pay Lee’s Tydy, with the expectation that the money would be used to purchase Sunrise Marine. But the money was soon gone, with none of it used to purchase the San Pedro firm. In a Nov. 7, 2006, arbitration ruling, retired Orange County Judge Judith Ryan wrote: “It is virtually undisputed that none of these funds were used in the purchase of the business. It is further not disputed that these funds are gone and no longer available to claimant.” In fact, Judge Ryan wrote, Lee and Tydy “used the funds for their own purpose.” The judge further said that Lee and Tydy “made fraudulent representations” and “did not intend to assist in the finalization of the purchase” of Sunrise Marine. Lee offered “no plausible explanation” for his personal use of Weinman’s money, and instead made unsupported claims that he used the funds for Weinman’s benefit, “for example, by taking him to lunch,” Ryan wrote. In an interview, Lee said that after receiving Weinman’s money, he decided against doing the deal. “The reality is the thing would have been settled a long time ago if the person was easier to manage and deal with,” Lee said of Weinman. Lee declined to explain what he did with Weinman’s money, saying, “I’m not supposed to disclose anything past that situation.” Through arbitration, Judge Ryan determined that Lee and Tydy owed Weinman $398,215.70, which included Weinman’s payment to Tydy and interest, minus the value of computer equipment Lee provided to Weinman. But Weinman eventually accepted about $60,000 less than the arbitrated amount through a settlement reached with Lee in July. Payment included two jet skis Weinman accepted in lieu of cash. “I had to take that (settlement) for fear that he would continue this on for many more years,” Weinman said. As for Lee’s plans to take Element Service public next year, he says the fraud judgment will not be an impediment. “I don’t think so,” Lee said. “Look at all the companies out there that have had issues. How many times has RJ Reynolds been sued? Look at all the suits against AT&T and MCI. If you’re in the business world for any amount of time, you’re going to have a dispute with somebody.” Lee’s point is undeniable. Corporate America spends billions of dollars each year to defend against lawsuits filed by clients, consumers, investors, other companies, private watchdog groups, federal and state agencies and even a firm’s own employees. The lawsuits can lead to hefty judgments against companies or out-of-court settlements. Yet, this reality has not stopped investors from putting their money into these firms. As for Lee’s plans to take his heating and air conditioning company public, it was a goal he initially hoped to achieve by January. He now plans to take his company public in April through a procedure known as reverse merger with Utilisource, a former power company that has been dormant for the past seven years while retaining its status as a public company. A reverse merger will allow Element Service to go public while avoiding many of the expenses associated with a traditional IPO. According to Harjoto, reverse mergers can be a way for a legally troubled company to go public because the process imposes much less scrutiny on a company and its management than does an IPO. “Investment bankers do due diligence, and if they found that the company has a liability or some fraud, they usually don’t want to be an underwriter because their reputation is on the line,” the assistant professor said. Lee rejected the notion that his past fraud judgment will hurt Element Service’s operation as a public company. “Here’s the bottom line,” he said. “The people in the company are working hard. We have people working their butts off, including me. And we’re trying to do the best thing for our company and customers and our investors.” Much of Lee’s planned growth for Element Service is based on a business plan he learned about earlier in his career from a firm where he provided technical consulting. The idea is to use energy-efficient heating, air conditioning and lighting appliances to reduce clients’ electricity bills. Element Service would also use solar power. Then the El Segundo company would profit from a share of the energy savings. Lee said a version of this business plan was profitable at the firm where he learned about it. And what was that firm’s name? Enron. [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. 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