When a group of developers announced a sweeping new project for Opelousas in front of TV cameras, politicians and a civic group last month, they vowed to tap an established network of international investors to bring billions of dollars in economic investments and tens of thousands of jobs.
Driving around town in a convoy of SUVs and a limousine, they issued alluring promises to transform the city’s airport into a “multi-modal transportation hub,” remodel the downtown jail, build a manufacturing facility and to otherwise reinvent the struggling city of 16,000 people in St. Landry Parish.
Opelousas was only one of several stops in the group's busy Louisiana tour. In Shreveport they proposed a multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of the city's fairgrounds, including construction of a new football stadium, according to a news report there, and they also stopped at a 1,200-acre site near Alexandria, where they talked of opening a school.
But information about the past business successes they tout is scarce, and two of the key players in the effort have had recent financial problems, according to a review of government records and publicly available information. And an executive of a company cited as the financial muscle behind the project said plans are in the preliminary stages and that he was shocked to hear an announcement had been made.
Those involved did not respond to requests for interviews to discuss their plans for Opelousas or other projects they've handled.
Spearheading the publicity tour was Opelousas native Haley Ahart-Keiffer, after whose family the current airport is named.
Ahart-Keiffer and her husband emerged from a personal bankruptcy last year after taking more than six years to pay off debts of $109,000, according to court files. At the time of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing 2011, the couple reported a combined annual income of $58,203.
Ahart-Keiffer did not respond to more than half a dozen messages left on her cell phone and at her office with queries about the Opelousas project, her bankruptcy and her other business activities. She did, however, post a YouTube video of herself on Nov. 2 talking about her desire to help Opelousas and warning that “purveyors of fake news” intended to attack her and derail the project.
A New York-based financier, Gbenga Adalumo, who accompanied Ahart-Keiffer when announcing the plans, also has had financial difficulties. Adalumo’s house in Baldwin, New York is in foreclosure, court records show.
Ahart-Keiffer’s company, Ahart Solutions International, is based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and she has been its president since October 2017, according to her LinkedIn page.
The announcement of Ahart-Keiffer’s new position as president of Ahart Solutions followed a June 2017 news release about her titled “Beauty Queen Business Mogul Opens Doors to UAE Opportunities.” Ahart-Keiffer had become “one of the most powerful and influential female executives today,” on par with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, boasts the news release, which was published four months after she emerged from bankruptcy.
That release was put out by a Los Angeles marketing company called Starz On The Rize, whose mailing address in California records is that of a Red Roof Inn. The chief executive of Starz On The Rize, Tique Davis, said he collaborated with Ahart-Keiffer on a rapid succession of ventures.
They include two charities. One took in money for a raffle that organizers say was never held. The other charity is named after Ahart-Kieffer's daughter, Macy, and says it serves people with intellectual disabilities.
Eyes on Ahart Field
Ahart-Keiffer, Adalumo and others in their group traveled around Opelousas on Oct. 25, receiving an enthusiastic introduction from Mayor Reggie Tatum at a St. Landry Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Ahart-Keiffer and her backers had been working “to bring business to Opleousas, investors, to the tune of $3.5 billion,” said Tatum, who lost a bid for re-election in the Nov. 6 election.
“When I tell you Opelousas is on the cusp of just blowing up, it is,” Tatum said.
Ahart-Keiffer is calling the Opelousas plans the “Steven Ahart Legacy Project,” in honor of her father, a pilot who was killed in a small plane crash in 1982 while flying for Opelousas-based Standard Fitting Co., according to a wire service news account at the time.
The developers that rolled into Opelousas had some big plans to announce last week for St. Landry Parish and the entire Acadiana region.
Steven Ahart is the namesake of the St. Landry Parish Airport-Ahart Field. Members of the Ahart family, including Ahart-Keiffer, have been trying to work out a deal involving the airport since 2015 through an entity called AGMGUSA, Inc.
Ahart-Keiffer sent an email on Dec. 1, 2015 to St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot and the parish’s economic development director, Bill Rodier, saying that AGMGUSA “securing the management of the airport” was her priority. Ahart-Keiffer also requested Rodier’s help in obtaining “available economic assistance perks, which are offered by the State.”
Rodier said in an interview that Ahart-Keiffer’s team never submitted a project worksheet outlining their specific needs, such as those related to infrastructure, telecommunications or sewage. Such a needs assessment is usually one of the first steps toward negotiating an incentive package with the state, Rodier said, and eventually his staff stopped staying in touch with the development team pursuing the airport project.
“We just periodically follow up with the projects until there really doesn’t seem to be anything left to follow up on,” Rodier said. “We probably assumed they found another investment location, or something changed in their plans.”
Rodier said he didn’t hear about the new, expanded plans until just before Ahart-Keiffer and her group arrived in Opelousas on Oct. 25. Rodier and Fontenot both said they hadn’t seen any designs, plans or other project documents.
Fontenot, speaking the day after the group’s visit, said not much had changed from previous pitches to develop the airport.
"This is really the same idea the Aharts have had since four years ago, and that's to develop the airport, to grow the airport, potentially even to an international airport," Fontenot said. "I didn't hear any more detail … than I heard the first time."
AGMGUSA was terminated as an incorporated entity last year and reinstated on Oct. 31. The group is registered at the law office of former state Sen. Elbert Guillory, who is a 50 percent stakeholder, according to its articles of incorporation. Ahart-Keiffer has called Guillory the chief public affairs officer for the project.
“We have people in from South Africa, from Canada, California, New York, all here to do their final inspection, groundbreaking. The next step is to get the final spigots open so the money starts to flow and work can begin,” Guillory said in an interview after the group visited in October.
He did not respond to a subsequent request for an interview.
On Facebook, Ahart-Keiffer said the project will bring “global companies to build their factories within Opelousas” and “transform Ahart Field into an International MultiModal Transportation Hub.” Developers additionally will build a “Smart City within Opelousas” and a “Smart Correctional Facility” to replace the shuttered Opelousas City Jail, Ahart-Keiffer wrote without explaining what she meant by those terms.
Describing the development process in a recent YouTube video, Ahart-Keiffer talked about acquiring what she called "signed LOIs" from city and parish officials, as well as state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield. Ahart-Keiffer did not explain what the letters said, and could not be reached for comment on the matter.
Long said in an interview that the letter he provided to Ahart-Keiffer was a standard, generic expression of support he would give to anyone undertaking an economic development project in his district. Long said the letter makes no commitments, but declined to provide a copy of it.
“I don’t know if you would call it a letter of intent, a letter of support or a letter of what, but it’s pretty standard in my 11 years that we do that,” Long said.
After obtaining the letters, investors conducted site surveys, Ahart-Keiffer said in her YouTube video, adding that they have decided to “proceed to the next level.”
Other companies involved
Adalumo, who was introduced as a key financier for the project, suggested after the luncheon that Tatum, the Opelousas mayor, had underestimated the level of investment. It could be “upwards of $10 billion,” the financier said.
Adalumo’s company, DalWorld Group, describes itself as a resort developer, urban planning consultant and an expert on topics “ranging from integrated real estate to intelligent railway infrastructure.” DalWorld claims on its website that it has signed “a multimillion dollar Joint Venture Agreement” to develop resorts in Nigeria, but does not specify its contract partner, the location, dollar amount or any other particulars.
Deutsche Bank, meanwhile, is foreclosing on Adalumo’s home in Baldwin, New York, claiming he owes a little more than $600,000, or the entire principal of the mortgage.
Adalumo did not return calls to the DalWorld phone number or to his cellphone.
Adalumo’s lawyer in his home foreclosure, Marc Isaac, would not discuss the case and said he didn’t know anything about the Opelousas project.
“Is he in trouble?” Isaac said, after being asked about the Opelousas project. “If he’s in trouble, let me know about it.”
Adalumo is listed on the website of a company called Plate, Ltd. as its United States representative, and Ahart-Keiffer has described DalWorld and Plate as the financial muscle capable of harnessing the investments for the multi-billion project in Opelousas.
A representative of Plate who responded to a call from The Advocate seeking information about the Opelousas project said Adalumo had no authority to make any commitments in Opelousas on the company’s behalf.
Farzad Kaj, who was calling from Germany and identified himself as a senior vice president of Plate, said he was “just shocked” to hear of the public announcement regarding a project in Louisiana because discussions about it are in the preliminary stages.
“We didn’t do due diligence. We didn’t check the feasibility of the project. I didn’t approve about market research,” Kaj said. “Many companies have many representatives around the world. We should be careful about them.”
Plate, meanwhile, has recently promoted itself with "illegitimate" uses of the United Nations name and logo, implying an affiliation that doesn't exist, according to a spokesman for U.N. secretary-general. Plate did not receive prior authorization to use the logo as required under a 1946 U.N. resolution, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The U.N. logo and name appeared on Plate’s website, which also describes the company as “the exclusive representative of Royal Academy of the United Nations located on Wall Street.”
The Royal Academy organization “has nothing to do with the United Nations,” Dujarric said. The Royal Academy of the United Nations' website disappeared following The Advocate's inquiries to the U.N. about Plate's representations.
Plate’s CEO, Seyed Nezhad, recently boasted on LinkedIn that Plate is a member of "the United Nations in the Strategic Division New York,” a privilege he claimed was afforded to fewer than 100 companies in the world.
Dujarric said there is no such entity within the U.N.
Several of Ahart-Keiffer’s recent ventures have involved Tique Davis, the man with the Los Angeles-based marketing firm who put out the news release touting her as one of the most powerful and influential female executives today. Davis said he has known Ahart-Keiffer for less than three years, but “it feels like I’ve known her forever.”
He claimed his relationship with Ahart-Keiffer, who he said was a close friend and business partner, soured last spring over a business deal he was involved in with her and West Point, Miss. lawyer Mark Cliett.
Ahart-Keiffer, Davis and Cliett were also involved together in two charity groups, one of them a Mississippi-based nonprofit called Millions Against Bullying.
Cliett incorporated the charity in August 2016 with Joseph Rubbo, who was listed in state records as the nonprofit’s vice president. Rubbo's name has been removed from the corporate filings. He pleaded guilty in May to unrelated fraud and money laundering charges, court records show. He is now serving a five-year federal prison sentence. Rubbo’s scheme to bilk investors in a sham television production studio and patented cleaning product unfolded over five years ending in December 2017, according to prosecutors.
The charity in late 2016 sold tickets for a chance to win a Lamborghini, but the raffle never happened, according to several people involved. Davis said Ahart-Keiffer asked him to help them with their marketing. Ahart-Keiffer in her current online profiles calls herself the executive director of the Millions Against Bullying organization.
The raffle drawing was to occur in April 2017, according to an event page on website set up for the raffle. A North Carolina luxury automobile dealer, Ryan Moreno, said he agreed to purchase the Lamborghini for a little more than $100,000 with the understanding the group would reimburse him through ticket sales.
But Moreno said only about $18,000 tickets were ultimately sold, the raffle had to be called off and he had to sell the Lamborghini at a loss. The Millions Against Bullying group “all started to split one way or another," he said.
In July, more than a year after the raffle was supposed to have been held, Cliett sent a mass email to ticket purchasers notifying them of their right to a refund, according to a copy of the email one of the recipients shared with The Advocate.
Davis and Ahart-Keiffer together formed a separate nonprofit group in Texas, Macy’s Miracles, in May 2017, according to Texas state records. Cliett is described on the Macy’s website as the organization’s chief legal counsel and treasurer.
The “about” section of the Macy’s website is primarily dedicated to the story of Ahart-Keiffer’s daughter, Macy, who was born with a seizure disorder and is “on the Autism Spectrum,” according to the website. The organization says its purpose is “to invest into the lives of Macy’s peers,” and to “provide them with self-sustaining life skills.”
Ahart-Keiffer’s designs extend beyond Opelousas.
The morning after visiting her hometown, Ahart-Keiffer and her group talked of embarking on major projects near Alexandria and in Shreveport.
In Facebook videos from visits from Independence Stadium in Shreveport and that city's fairgrounds, Ahart-Keiffer alluded to another major redevelopment project.
She said in the video that she couldn't reveal any details because of non-disclosure agreements. In a news report, KTBS-TV in Shreveport said it had learned that Ahart-Keiffer and her group have proposed investing $5 billion in a new 85,000-seat stadium, an indoor tennis facility, a high-rise hotel and other amenities.
At Cowboy Town, a vacant former entertainment facility near Alexandria, the group walked around for 45 minutes and talked of opening a school, the owner, Matt Ritchie, told The Advocate. Discussion was limited to broad concepts, and did not include “dollars and cents, time periods or anything like that,” Ritchie said.
Members of the entourage took turns making short speeches at Cowboy Town, as captured on Ahart-Keiffer's video on Facebook. Adalumo said it had taken him “all of five minutes to come on board” with Ahart-Keiffer, and that the new school “is going to transform, going to impact lives, create a living wage for people.”
When attention turned to Ahart-Keiffer, she thanked the financiers.
“It’s crazy how y’all coming on board has just catapulted this to be probably one of the most massive projects the State of Louisiana will ever be blessed to have,” she said.
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