Very Good At Being Bad!

January18/ 2000

… Stanley H. Van Etten is going to federal prison for the next ten years for “financial improprieties” of epic magnitude.   In my 40 years of meanderings across the fruited plains, I have met two “businessmen” who sent cold chills down my spine. … Stan Van Etten is one of them.

(NOTE:  As you read today’s column, imagine it is being read by that actor who narrates City Confidental.  I tried it and it really gives it a eerie feel.   BLS)

We have all met our share of “good salesmen” from the retail clerk that gets you to buy more than you intended to, to the carny barker on the midway luring you into his “game of chance”.  Selling is a noble profession when practiced by those of honorable intent.

Remember the scene in Silence Of The Lambs where Clarisse is led down into the depths of the ultra maximum security prison to interview “Dr. Lechter”?  Even with Lechter behind multiple layers of confinement, Clarisse sits well back from him knowing of his powers to “get into your mind” and control you.  Any physical closeness was liable to have fatal consequences.

We met for lunch in a restaurant in Raleigh’s Cameron Village in the mid 90s.  A mutual acquaintance thought we might have some mutual interest.  That 3rd party and I have shared many laughs over that encounter.

Stan was a partner in that restaurant venture.  He somehow gained control of the business,  to the extent he took one of the partners house from him.

I remember as I left the restaurant saying “Bill Clinton”.  That apt comparison would be used often from that day on.  The two men bear a striking physical resemblance … eerily so.  He is a big man, 6’4 – 6’5, with a thick shock of blond hair, large hands, and that ability to dominate any room he is in simply by his presence.

I have never met Clinton but even his harshest critics maintain you cannot help but “like him” when you meet him despite all that you might know about him going into the meeting.  It is not a “talent” that one develops.  It is an innate quality one has that can lead to notable achievement in leading others … leading them to explore new frontiers and establish new nations … OR convincing them to sign away one’s financial assets.

What saved me from being drawn in any further may have been a quality that I have often criticized myself for not possessing.  I am not “money-driven”.    A basic human liability … to think you can get a lot of something for very little … specifically “a lot of money”.  

I did not “outsmart” Stan.  Not hardly.  I am reasonably bright.  Not intellectually enlightened enough to vote for Algore or John Kerry … I’m not THAT smart.  But I simply lacked that flaw.

Disgruntled Wuffies are calling Chuck “a snake-oil salesman” for not delivering on his “promises” of championships and gridiron glory.  Puhleeze … Men like Stan could have the filings out of Chuck’s teeth, melted down and in his Grand Cayman account before Chuck could say “fast lane”.  Chuck Amato is simply an overly optimistic  football coach.

That meeting was just “to meet”.  He was not selling or “drawing circles” or flashing bling.  As I drove away after that initial meeting I recall being more impressed by his “aura” than anything he said.  I found him fascinating.  Hearing myself use the Clinton analogy erected enough “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” barriers that I was immunized early on.

Anytime a business man refers to himself as “their spiritual leader” in reference to his “followers” … that be a clue to RUN FAST IN THE OTHER DIRECTION! … and avoid any offer of kool-aid.

“The Saga of Stan Van Etten & IHI” has been an ongoing news item in the Raleigh area for ten plus years.  When the amounts involved reach the $150,000,000 level it gets headlines any where.  “What’s new with IHI today?” was a daily question that the N&O endeavored to answer so often that it was suggested to then Editor Fred Crisp that he get a new file photo of the subject.  The one they had was wearing out from such heavy use.

Pyramid schemes have been around for many many years.  When you say “pyramid scheme” to most folks they think Amway because of the saturation of that company into the mainstream culture.  Who has not been invited to a casual acquaintance’s home “to hear about a business opportunity”.   Amway is not a pyramid scheme.  Amway is entirely legal and has created significant wealth and financial freedom for many honest, law-abiding citizens who were willing to “work the plan”..

IHI created significant wealth for Stan Van Etten.  Many people lost great amounts of money investing in IHI.

Stan started in penny stock trading.  Small investors bet their rent money and car payments.  If it worked for pennies … it could work for millions.  Willie Sutton robbed banks “because that’s where the money was”.  “Why not deal with wealthy people since they have more money than less wealthy people”.  Or, better yet, come up with a plan that entices both … indeed.

A favorite “Stan story” involved IHI’s world headquarters in downtown Raleigh.  Before the federal marshals arrived with the chains and padlocks, IHI created the ultimate opulent surroundings to wow anyone who thinks “if more is good” then “total sh*t-kickin’ opulence must be even better”.  As one opened the doors to the headquarters of IHI there he was … Stan Van Etten in a life-sized oil painting staring down at you.  Some said there was even a magic in that painting.  Look deep into the eyes of the painting and first thing you know you were writing down your bank account numbers and saying “here”.  Over 100,000 folks said “here” … YIKES!

The American judicial system is what it is.  As a current TV lawyer says “If you’ve got the right lawyer, it’s the best system ever created”.  When the feds padlocked the IHI offices, it began an eight year drawn out process of denials … dismay that “those who I only wanted to help would turn against me so”.  Essentially, the “who me, why me?” defense.

Names of IHI other principals began to emerge and they matched up with the local social registry and the memberships of local country clubs.  Even “old money” wants “more money”.  Local law firms got calls that began “I might need your services if a certain “investment irregularity” gets much more attention”.  It got more attention.

When Stan was in his high-rolling glory he competed for the title of Raleigh’s most extravagant high-roller with Pete Loftin.  Stan and Pete could have been “brothers from different mothers”.  They bore a striking physical similarity.  Pete’s long distance reselling operation, BTI, nestled inside the bounds of legality while Stan was forever running into and around pesky SEC regulations

A common flaw with “quickly acquired wealth” is a driving thirst for public plaudits.  It’s the Achilles heel.  Flaunt their charitable largesse via their own PR machines, but those large ceremonial checks quite often never clear the bank.

Stan did have “that painting”, the mansion and assorted toys.  Pete did buy Casa Casuarina (aka Versace’s playpen) plus Pete had that paternity suit filed (and later dismissed) involving a Hooter’s girl … or was it a Hawaiian Tropic girl?”.   Two Raleigh boys living large just like the boys in LA and Vegas.

As I said at the offset, Stan is one of two such major league “artful dodgers” I have encountered in my travels.  Men so artful they can out “sincere” any polygraph ever built, and they will sign up the polygraph operator as a new investor.  Such men once met are not forgotten.

The other one was Bill Windsor in Dallas in the early 80s.  Bill once had eight “consumer reporters” at his door at the same time and over 100 complaints on file against him with the FTC.  Of course Bill “could not understand why all those people were saying those nasty things about me.  I just tried to help them.”  People who say such things usually have multiple “off-shore” bank accounts.

Stan Van Etten and Bill Windsor.   I’d give the edge to Stan but not by much.  Both could tear-up on cue and do that “bite his lower lip” thing.  Wait a minute, that sounds familiar.  Somebody else does that?  It’ll come to me.

Stan will no doubt be assigned to the “But I’m innocent, really I am” wing of the Gray Bar Hilton.  I hear it’s a pretty crowded cellblock.


Team Swagger sends our sincere wishes to all of you 

For a Happy Thanksgiving !


Don’t forget about that Wally Wade restroom thingie on Saturday.  Wear hip boots or bring an empty water bottle.  You’ve been warned.


 Where is “The Versace Mansion”?


Norm Chow served many years at BYU before ending up at Raleigh just as #17 arrived from Athens, Alabama. 

Want to e-mail BobLee? …  [email protected]

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