The Venture Capital Firm That Wasn’t There
Asenqua Ventures has a shady history, and a fictional present.
In 2012, hedge fund manager and venture capitalist Albert Hu was convicted of a financial fraud that stretched from Silicon Valley to Hong Kong. Today, he is locked up in the minimum security wing of Lompoc federal prison—inmate #131600-111—without access to the Internet. But, somehow, his bogus investment firm has come back to life.
On the surface, Asenqua Ventures appears to be legitimate. It has a website. It has a working voicemail system and lists a Northern California office address. It has distributed multiple press releases via PRNewswire, which were then picked up by reputable media organizations. It is included in financial industry databases like Crunchbase, PitchBook, and S&P Capital IQ. Its senior managers have LinkedIn profiles.
One of those profiles belonged to Stephen Adler, who earlier this week sent out hundreds of new Linkedin “connect” invitations (many of which were accepted). Among the recipients was Marty McMahon, a veteran executive recruiter who just felt that something was a bit off about Adler’s profile. So he did a Google (GOOG) reverse image search on Adler’s profile pic, and quickly learned that the headshot actually belonged to a San Diego real estate agent named Dan Becker.
McMahon called Dan Becker, who he says was stunned to learn that his photo was being used by someone who he didn’t know. Then McMahon did another image search for the LinkedIn profile pic of Adler’s colleague, Michael Reed. This time it led him to Will Fagan, another San Diego realtor who often works with Dan Becker. (In a phone call with Fortune, Fagan confirmed it was his photo, but denied knowing Michael Reed or Asenqua Ventures.)
McMahon next informed LinkedIn (LNKD) of the apparent fraud, and then emailed Fortune to share what he had discovered. Within 24 hours, both profiles had disappeared from the social network.
The original incarnation of Asenqua Ventures was formed in 2001 by Albert Hu, an MIT alumnus who previously had founded a failed company in Sunnyvale, California. Court records show that he raised at least $5 million from individual investors, with a promise to invest it in technology companies via a hedge fund strategy. Prosecutors, however, allege that it was mostly a shell game whereby Hu moved some of the money into his personal accounts. Moreover, he falsely claimed to have retained a reputable law firm, and apparently conjured up an auditor out of thin air.
In 2005, Hu told investors that he needed to move the fund to Singapore for tax and “privacy” reasons. Two years later, he helped fill out a venture capital round for Konarka Technologies, a Massachusetts cleantech startup that later would go bankrupt. Its former CEO, Howard Berke, tells Fortune that Hu ultimately invested less than he had originally promised. By late 2008, Asenqua investors were asking for their money back.
Hu granted two redemption requests—albeit at a lower value than Asenqua’s quarterly reports suggested they should be worth—but not the others. He also stopped returning investor phone calls or answering emails.
When federal prosecutors filed charges in March 2009, Hu was holed up in Hong Kong and unsuccessfully tried to challenge extradition. Following a three-week jury trial, he was convicted of seven counts of wire fraud and later would receive a 12-year prison sentence.
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After Hu’s trial, Asenqua Ventures seemed to disappear. Its website went offline, and its various business entities dissipated, per records at the California Secretary of State’s office.
But then, in the summer of 2015, www.asenquavc.com reemerged, claiming to represent two entities:
- Asenqua Ventures, a “private equity merchant banking firm focused on early stage and middle market opportunities.”
- Asenqua Financial Advisors Inc, which “can support a diverse array of financial engagements, including mergers and acquisitions, leveraged buyouts, restructurings, recapitalizations and capital formation.”
There was no more mention of Albert Hu, but the website’s “team” page was full of people with impressive-looking resumes. For example, managing director Peter Arnold “spent 23 years as an Investment Banker/Venture Capitalist, where he was instrumental in the development of over 200 businesses with early-stage funding in excess of $2 billion dollars.” Fellow managing director Bob Lin had been “responsible for the financial management of over 6,000 IBM (IBM) software developers and responsible for over $500 million in annual company revenues.”
Moreover, Arnold had a LinkedIn profile claiming that he had spent nearly six years as a managing director with New York-based investment giant BlackRock (BLK).
None of this, however, holds up. Arnold’s website bio appears to have been largely lifted verbatim from that of Los Angeles financier and reality TV star Russell Armstrong, who committed suicide back in 2012. The BlackRock piece is also fiction, as the firm says no one by the name of “Peter Arnold” ever worked there.
Bob Lin’s website bio is pilfered from Bernie Rice, one of Armstrong’s former colleagues. Moreover, legal documents show that a man named Bob Lin actually was one of Albert Hu’s fraud victims who testified at his trial.
Neither “Stephen Adler” nor “Michael Reed”―the two San Diego real estate doppelgängers―appeared on last year’s version of the Asenqua Ventures website. In fact, their first online mentions came just three weeks ago, in a press release:
Both Adler and Reed are quoted in the release, which says that Asenqua “has raised over $700 Million in capital and has provided funding to over 100 companies.”
The Aug. 23 press release ends by saying that those who wish to contact the firm should email or call someone named Jack Stewart. As you might imagine, Stewart also has a LinkedIn profile (albeit without a photo), claiming that he worked as a management consultant at A.T. Kearney for nearly five years before joining Asenqua in 2004. A spokeswoman for A.T. Kearney says that there is no record of a Jack Stewart ever being employed by the company.
By the time of the release, www.asenquavc.com had been completely relaunched with new stock photos, new boilerplate and no specific names in its “team” section.
Last week came a follow-up press release from Asenqua, claiming that the firm had raised $125 million for its fourth fund. Gone were any mention of Reed or Stewart, although Arnold was now listed as the contact name. The press release did, however, introduce two new managing directors named Jason Yi and Steve Ross. Yi has a bare-bones LinkedIn profile with no connections, while the apparent LinkedIn profile for Ross actually refers to him as Stephen Rose.
The new press release was picked up by several outside news organizations, with information about “Fund IV” also making it into industry databases. Asenqua Ventures, however, is not registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as an investment advisor, nor did it file a Form D in association with the new fund—let alone for any of the prior three. There also is no public record of any of Asenqua’s “over 100” prior investments, save for the defunct cleantech startup, Konarka.
Is anybody there?
When you ring Asenqua Ventures, a recorded female voice thanks you for calling the firm (pronounced A-sin-qua), and asks that you dial “the extension of the person you are trying to reach.” There is no dial-by-name directory. Fortune entered more than two dozen different possible extensions, including 0-10, 20, 50, 100 and 200. None of them worked.
We also sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, which is the email listed on both the firm’s website and its press releases, asking simply: “Is this a working email address.”
On Wednesday afternoon came a reply:
This was the first mention of a Wade Lee, and we immediately asked if he either could call us or if there was a good number for us to contact him. Lee replied that he is “just an office manager” who is “not authorized to speak to the media.” He then said that he had “forwarded your request to our managing directors and have asked them to contact you directly in regards to this matter.”
Then, Wade Lee added: “I do not have anyone at the office today but I know Mr. Patel is coming in tomorrow and if you do not hear from anyone by that time I will request him to give you a call.”
Mr. Patel? Where is Stephen Adler?
Since we already were in contact with Wade Lee, we kept up the email conversation, and were told that Mr. Patel is “actually an analyst and not a partner” named Raj Patel who “should be able to answer all of your questions.”
Then, after another email asking about Stephen Adler, came this:
We sent Wade Lee two specific questions. The first was why Asenqua isn’t registered with the SEC. The second was for some the names of some companies Asenqua has invested in. We also sent an email to Adler, asking to speak.
Lee never gave us company names, but did respond to the SEC query by writing: “Asenqua does not provide securities. It is a strictly private fund with a small group of investors and only provides private offerings.”
It’s an explanation that sounds good, except that even private funds providing private offerings to a small group of investors is required to register its offerings with the SEC. Particularly if the fund size is in the range of $125 million.
While waiting for a reply from Adler, we asked Lee one final question—What is Asenqua’s office address?—given that the one listed in Crunchbase and elsewhere was for the Sunnyvale space that Albert Hu abandoned back in 2012. He answered that Asenqua had “recently moved from Sunnyvale” to 1000 Fourth Street #720, San Rafael, California.
This is untrue, according to the exclusive leasing broker for that building. Not only is there no tenant by the name of Asenqua Ventures, but there isn’t even a Suite #720.
“Stephen Adler,” who shares his name with the editor-in-chief of Reuters and the original drummer of Guns ‘n Roses, never wrote back.
It appears almost certain that whoever is behind Asenqua Ventures is running some sort of con. But who that individual is and the other specifics remain a mystery.
Fortune contacted PRNewswire on Tuesday, informing it of the situation and asking for information on who paid for the two press releases. Following an internal investigation, PRNewswire told us on Thursday that that the releases were originally submitted via a longstanding third-party partner called eReleases (which is supposed to be responsible for editorial verification), and that the only contact name provided to PRNewswire by eReleases was Stephen Adler. The two press releases were removed from the PRNewswire website early Friday morning.
Hu himself does not have access to the Internet at his prison in Santa Barbara, so cannot be the person who has been updating the Asenqua website. He does have the ability to send emails, but only to approved contacts who first must consent to receiving communications from an inmate. In other words, if Hu is somehow involved, he isn’t alone.
One source familiar with Hu suggests that perhaps Asenqua’s reincarnation has been perpetrated by one of the convict’s former associates in Asia, in order to create an American facade to solicit new investors. Just like it’s easy to use Internet tools to hide one’s identity, it also can be used to create new ones. Not to mention cheap, as it needn’t have cost more than a couple thousand dollars to put together Asenqua’s online profile.
“What I just don’t understand,” the source added, “is why they’d use the same name.”
Update: Following the publication of this story, the Asenqua Ventures website was taken offline. Emails to the email@example.com address now bounce back as undeliverable.