In May 2003, a dapper self-described financial strategist from Century City embarked on what he promised investors would be a riveting television series based on the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Saying his drama had the blessing of President Bush and others in Washington, D.C., Joseph M. Medawar quickly found plenty of backers for the show -- one that he promised would be followed by a reality-based series titled “Fighting Terrorism Together.”
But on Friday, in an ending that might have been foretold by anyone with a healthy skepticism of the Hollywood pitch, Medawar was arrested by FBI and IRS agents on charges that he bilked at least 70 investors -- many of them from local churches -- out of more than $5.5 million. Virtually all of the money, according to authorities, went to a lavish lifestyle that included luxury cars, shopping sprees, fancy dinners and $40,000-a-month in rent for a Beverly Hills mansion.
So persuasive was Medawar, 43, that he not only won over dozens of investors but persuaded some of the state’s prominent Republicans that his Homeland Security series deserved their support. They included U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach and businessman Mario Rodriguez, who was the Western regional director of Bush’s reelection campaign and was listed on the show’s website as a producer until a few months ago.
“He talked a great game,” said Rodriguez, who told Medawar to remove his name from the site after he learned about the FBI investigation.
According to a federal complaint filed in Los Angeles, Medawar launched his elaborate con more than two years ago by telling investors his production company, Steeple Enterprises, had a new television series about the Homeland Security Department that had the full support of the White House and unprecedented access to national security officials. The plans, he said, called for shooting 26 episodesand distributing it in 137 overseas markets. Assured that government involvement would make the show a hit, investors were urged to buy stock in Medawar’s production company before he took it public.
But in a 120-page affidavit, FBI Agent E. Paul Bertrand said Medawar never produced the 26 episodes, the company’s stock was never listed for sale and that federal officials confirmed they had never endorsed the show.
So skillful was Medawar that even after investors learned that the FBI was looking into his activities, he persuaded them it was standard procedure for any company going public, the affidavit alleges. The affidavit describes how Medawar allegedly spent millions of dollars collected for the show on extravagances for himself; the show’s female lead, Alison Heruth Waterbury; and her family.
Much of that money, according to the affidavit, came from church members such as Rosa Valdez, a widow who invested almost $100,000 through her pastor at Desert Bloom Ministries church in Whittier. Valdez said she decided to invest because a conversation with Pastor Al Forniss Sr., also an investor, made her feel “like God was speaking to her,” the affidavit says.
Money from Valdez and three other investors went to cashier’s checks and various indulgences by Medawar’s company, including a $1,310 dinner at Mastro’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills and $1,093 in purchases at Prada, Bertrand said in the affidavit.
Medawar appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich on Friday for a bail hearing, but it was postponed until Monday to give the defendant’s family time to gather documents required for posting bond.
Assistant U.S. Atty. David K. Willingham told the judge the government would oppose Medawar’s release. Medawar, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon, has lived abroad, speaks several foreign languages and is a flight risk, he said.
Victor Cannon, a deputy federal public defender who represented Medawar at the hearing, said his client was prepared to surrender his passport. He said Medawar wanted “to stay here with his family and fight these charges.”
Medawar’s father and brother attended the hearing. Speaking for the family afterward, Roy Medawar said his brother “is innocent, and we are confident he will be exonerated of all the charges.”
Prosecutor Willingham would not comment on whether there would be more arrests, but he said the charges against Medawar demonstrate “the government will not stand for someone using the government’s official status to steal money from people.”
Orange County businessman Rodriguez said Medawar’s idea for a Homeland Security show intrigued him, and he offered to help when Medawar was ready to start filming. But nothing ever seemed to materialize, he said.
“He tried to bring a lot of people in. When he told me what he was trying to do, educate people to fight terrorism, I thought it was a great concept. He wanted to make me a producer,” Rodriguez recalled.
About two to three months ago, after Rodriguez was interviewed by an FBI agent, he called Medawar and told him he wanted no further involvement. “I never had any business dealings with the show,” he said.
Rohrabacher, who represents California’s 46th Congressional District, acknowledged that he put Medawar in touch with at least five other members of Congress, including Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who was then head of the White House’s Homeland Security Advisory Council. Cox is now head of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Rohrabacher said he and Cox dined with Medawar at a Washington restaurant to discuss the different agencies within the Homeland Security Department. Medawar and members of his production team made several return trips, and Rohrabacher helped get them access to representatives at several federal law enforcement agencies.
“He’s been involved with film projects in the past. So he had the credentials. And he had a great idea,” Rohrbacher said.
Rohrabacher denied helping Medawar gain access to the president or the White House, saying the claim is “ridiculous.” But Rohrabacher said he told Medawar and his crew that if “they do a good job, I would make sure the president saw their pilot movie.”
About a year ago, Rohrbacher said, he and others who had agreed to help backed away from the project, believing that it wasn’t going anywhere and that “Joe exaggerated a lot of things.”
Rohrabacher received a $2,000 campaign donation from Medawar two years ago but said his assistance was not a political favor.
Rodriguez and Rohrabacher said they were introduced to Medawar during a party at the Beverly Hills home of Arthur M. Kassel, who is well known for his Hollywood connections and fundraising efforts for law enforcement. Kassel was listed as a co-producer of “D.H.S: the series” on one of Medawar’s websites, www.dhstheseries.tv.
Kassel is a senior advisor to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, a captain in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department reserve program and chief of security services for the California Department of Mental Health.
An Orange County sheriff’s official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the show filmed segments about two years ago at the department’s headquarters building in Santa Ana and the Emergency Communications Bureau in eastern Orange County. The shoot entourage included Medawar, an actress and an actor, said the official, who could not recall further details.
“Art Kassel had all the law enforcement contacts Medawar needed. He knows the police and sheriff’s around here a lot more than I do,” Rohrabacher said. “Art was one of the ones who backed away too.”
Kassel could not be reached for comment Friday.
Medawar faces 25 years in prison if convicted on the charges of mail fraud and obstruction of justice for allegedly providing false documents to the FBI during its investigation.
Times staff writer David Rosenzweig contributed to this report.