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Hardin To Create Own Police Force — But Pledges Not To Hire APPF

TPM MUCKRAKER- Zachary Roth | October 7, 2009, 10:02AM

We told you this week the contract between Hardin, Montana and American Private Police Force gave the shady security contractor the chance to take over the town’s policing needs, in addition to running Hardin’s prison. It appears to have been this potential law enforcement responsibility that led APPF to roll into town late last month in three Mercedes SUVs bearing the words “City of Hardin Police Department,” setting off a panic that soon spread far beyond Hardin.

Now that the APPF deal seems to have been on hold, you’d think local officials might now be wary of doing anything that might re-open the police force issue. But yesterday, Big Horn County commissioners nonetheless went ahead and voted to allow the city to create its own police department – though only after making assurances that APPF won’t get the job.

Hardin has been trying to create its own force for several years, which would allow it to no longer rely on the county sheriff’s office for law enforcement. Indeed, the flirtation with APPF as a potential law enforcement provider appears to have been connected to this long-standing deconsolidation effort.

For a while, that seemed likely to derail the entire project. As Becky Convery, the Hardin former attorney, who is still working with the city on the police force issue, put it to commissioners yesterday: “Somehow we went down this other path that sort of sidetracked everything.”

Now deconsolidation is back on. But as the Billings Gazette puts it:

It’s not clear where the city will get the estimated $1 million a year it will cost to run a department with a police chief and seven officers.

Hmmm…we hear there’s a California-based private contractor with a long record of criminal fraud and a history of alcoholism who’ll do it on the cheap.

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Michael Hilton

Hardin, Montana, Puts Jail Deal With APPF On Ice

TPM MUCKRAKER– Justin Elliott | October 6, 2009, 9:08AM

Spooked by a man who turned out to be a convicted felon and who appears to have repeatedly lied on his way to acquiring a lease for an empty jail in Hardin, MT, town leaders yesterday put the deal with American Private Police Force on hold.

Last week, the state attorney general launched a probe of the deal that was pushed through by a man calling himself “Captain” Michael Hilton.

The AP reports on the Hardin board meeting yesterday that put a stop to the whole project:

“We won’t move forward. I don’t think any of us want to be on the chopping block,” said Gary Arneson, president of Hardin’s Two Rivers Authority, which owns the jail. …On Friday, a California judge ordered Hilton to appear in court Oct. 27 over an outstanding judgment in a fraud lawsuit.

In that case, Hilton lured investors to sink money into an assisted living complex in Southern California that was never built. …

Arneson said no further action would be taken until the authority hires an attorney to replace Becky Convery, the lawyer who helped forge the agreement with American Police Force.

A bank that is trustee on the bond taken out by Hardin to build the jail — long in default — never OKed the deal with APPF. Besides the jail lease, the deal would give APPF the right to run the town’s law enforcement operations.

Also yesterday, Greg Smith, the chief of the town’s economic development agency who had been put on paid leave without explanation since a few days after the initial deal was brokered last month, gave up his post. No explanation was offered for why Smith, who was said to have conducted a background check on Hilton, resigned.

And AP reports that town officials were told by Hilton that a man named Michael Cohen, of International Security Associates in Ohio, would be director of operations for the jail project. But Cohen told the AP that’s not true — he only had a cursory meeting with Hilton.

Hardin official Al Peterson told TPMmuckraker yesterday that the director of ops was “highly qualified” and had a “pretty nice” resume, but was currently in Afghanistan.

This isn’t the first time Hilton has claimed that people and companies with whom he’s only had superficial contact would be playing major roles at APPF.

So what’s next? Even though the deal was never consummated, APPF has had the keys to the jail since at least a week. In fact, APPF flack — and former Billings Gazette reporter — Becky Shay has been working out of the facility, she told us last week.

Peterson told TPMmuckraker before the board meeting yesterday: “I have no idea who gave [the keys] to them or what day.”

Late Update: Guess who was a no show for that board meeting? KULR in Billings:

APF Spokeswoman Becky Shay said she wasn’t aware Hilton told the board he would attend Monday’s meeting. “Apparently he said he would be here before I went to work for him,” Shay said.

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APPF’s Dubious Story Gets Even More Dubious

TPM MUCKRAKER– Justin Elliott | October 5, 2009, 6:46PM

We’ve known since last week that the story surrounding a deal that handed an empty jail in Hardin, MT, to shadowy private security company American Private Police Force just wasn’t adding up. Today, it became still more clear that APPF has a lot of explaining to do.

Let’s review the developments:

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Hardin Official: Unnamed But ‘Highly Qualified’ APPF Director Of Ops In Afghanistan Right Now

TPM MUCKRAKER– Justin Elliott | October 5, 2009, 6:08PM

American Private Police Force has hired a director of operations for the Hardin jail project who will not be publicly named until next week but who is a “highly qualified” retired U.S. military person doing training in Afghanistan, a Hardin official tells TPMmuckraker.

“I’ve got his resume and it looks pretty nice,” says Al Peterson of the Hardin economic development agency, which brokered the jail deal with APPF.

Peterson wouldn’t say who the director of operations is, but confirmed it was not a Hardin local.

APPF official “Captain” Michael Hilton has said that his boss is a retired U.S. Army colonel named Richard Culver who is currently overseas, the AP reported last month. But the AP was not able to verify Culver’s role in the firm. And no colonel of that name has a footprint on Lexis-Nexis.

There’s been some chatter online that a former official of medical and security services firm International SOS — who is named Richard Culver — could be linked to APPF. But a member of the company’s security firm told us today that Culver, who left the company about a year ago, was not a U.S. citizen and had no affiliation with the Army.

We’ve put in a call with the Army about a Col. Culver, and we’ll let you know what we find out.

Late Update:: International SOS spokeswoman Erin Giordano tells TPMmuckraker the company has “no affiliation” with American Private Police Force. “It’s not the same Rich Culver,” she says.

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APPF Lawyer Who Said Info Would ‘Gradually Be More Clear’ Quits

TPM MUCKRAKER– Justin Elliott | October 5, 2009, 3:35PM

Maziar Mafi, the California lawyer who had been variously identified as American Private Police Force’s legal affairs director, president, and a “major” in the company, on Friday severed his ties to the Hardin, MT, jail project until he sees “more concrete action.”

Mafi’s practice, like APPF, is based in Santa Ana, California. As a specialist in personal injury, immigration, and business law, he had seemed an odd choice of counsel for a firm that claims to play a critical role in filling the United States government’s “homeland security needs.”

Mafi told the AP: “For the time, I’m pulling out. I need to see more concrete action before I can be involved.”

And the AP observes that APPF official ‘Captain’ Michael Hilton misrepresented Mafi’s role in the organization:

Hilton, who claims an extensive military background and uses the title “captain,” initially described Mafi as a “major” in American Police Force. He later said Mafi was the company’s president–although Mafi denied the role and said he had no military or security background.

The AP quoted Mafi in the middle of September describing the company was a “as a fledgling spin-off of a major security firm founded in 1984.” Declining to name the firm in question, he said at the time: “It will gradually be more clear as things go along.”

Clearly, that did not happen to Mafi’s satisfaction.

Contacted by TPMmuckraker today, Mafi declined to comment about his relationship with APPF or about whether he’s still confident in his description of APPF’s parent company. APPF spokeswoman Becky Shay has not returned calls for comment.

The APPF project may have done more than damage merely Mafi’s reputation: he also “guaranteed the Sept. 10 purchase of two Mercedes SUVs by Hilton,” the AP reports. Those would be the SUVs that drove into town late last month bearing “City Of Hardin Police Department” decals. A payment on one of the vehicles is now late.

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APF spokesperson holds emotional press conference; lawyer quits project

Billings Gazette

TOM LUTEY Of The Gazette Staff October 2, 2009 7:40 pm

A sobbing spokeswoman for the secretive company occupying the Hardin jail welcomed an investigation by Montana’s attorney general Friday and expressed concerns for her own safety amid rumors about her company.

Becky Shay, in a 45-minute, wide-ranging press conference during which she occasionally broke into tears, said the California-based American Police Force welcomed an information request made Thursday by Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.

Meanwhile, an attorney involved in the project cut ties with APF Friday and a second company, once named as a subcontractor, denied any involvement.

Shay said she hadn’t been formally served papers by the attorney general, who said he is concerned that APF might be violating the Montana Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act. APF has reached a multimillion-dollar agreement with Hardin’s economic development arm, Two Rivers Authority, to run the empty Hardin jail, built two years ago to house inmates under contract. She said she had read of Bullock’s request in the news media.

Shay mentioned the attorney general’s request almost as a two-minute side note in a press conference that revealed that the former Billings Gazette reporter and new face of APF fears for her safety.

“A lot of work I’ve done has been to calm down or at least try to counteract comments from people I consider to be fear mongers,” Shay said. “What has happened in the interim, however, is those people’s friends around the nation have been in contact with me or tried to access me. I realize I’m being pretty vague so that we don’t support or incite these people. I don’t want my words to be taken out of context to further inflame the tensions that I’m working under.”

At that point, Shay began to cry. She asked TV media at the conference to turn their cameras off because, she said, “it’s important to me that I do not appear as vulnerable as I feel.”

APF officials, who rolled into Hardin last week in three black, Mercedes sport utility vehicles bearing faux police insignia and no license plates, have since departed, leaving Shay as the company’s lone point of contact for all comers, including those reading dire motives into APF’s insistent secrecy.

Shay said APF front man Michael Hilton plans to return to Hardin for a two-day job fair beginning Oct. 12.

Specifically, Shay mentioned Internet radio personality Alex Jones, of Austin, Texas. Jones, of infowars.com, was in Hardin on Thursday reporting on APF. Government and corporate takeovers of society are hot topics on Infowars. Jones indicated the Hardin situation was an example of the possibility of government or corporate takeover of a rural area.

Jones said Hardin’s story involved a convicted felon, Hilton, landing in the middle of nowhere and taking over a large jail capable of serving a city of several hundred thousand people. The facility, empty since it was constructed roughly two years ago, has room for more than 464 beds.

More from Billings

More Legal Issues for APF: Kulr8.com

Video from Billings Gazette

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Montana AG Probing American Police Force Deal

TPM MUCKRAKER- Zachary Roth | October 2, 2009, 9:50AM

Could the party be over for American Police Force?

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock is investigating the mysterious security contractor’s deal to run an empty jail in the tiny town of Hardin, reports the Billings Gazette. And he doesn’t appear to be messing around.

In a nine-page letter sent late yesterday afternoon to Becky Shay — the former Gazette reporter who recently signed on as APF’s public relations director — Bullock said he’s probing whether APF may be violating Montana’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act.

Specifically, Bullock wants proof for many of the statements on APF’s website which have been called into question by media reports in recent days — such as the claims that the company frequently has contracts with the U.S. government, and has operations in all 50 states.

Bullock also has asked for a copy of the contract between APF and Hardin, which the town has so far declined to make public, and has asked that APF disclose any lawsuits filed against it or Michael Hilton — the APF official who led the negotiations with Hardin, and whose lengthy criminal record and alleged history of alcoholism has intensified concerns about the deal. Bullock also wants any correspondence between APF and any government agency that has accused the company of being deceptive.

Bullock sent a separate letter to Al Peterson and a second official with the Two Rivers Authority (TRA), Hardin’s economic development agency which signed the deal with APF. Peterson didn’t respond to the Gazette‘s request for comment, but asked yesterday by TPMmuckraker about the deal, he replied: “What have we got to lose?”

More on this to come…

Late Update: We’ve now obtained the letters from Bullock to APG [APF] to TRA. You can read them here.

The letter to TRA asks for all documents relating to the APF deal, and also, for information on “[a]ll direct or indirect interests Authority board members or their immediate families in American Police Force (including without limitation its officers, affiliates, or agents).”

In a conciliatory note, Bullock adds: “In writing, I also wish to express my understanding of your concern for your community and the pressure you are under to fill the unoccupied facility.”

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