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Issa's Rags-to-Riches Tale Has Some Ugly Chapters

Politics: Senate candidate left a trail of spurned business associates. He dismisses criticism as sour grapes.

May 23, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The company also had begun doing electronics work for Adkins. The relationship went smoothly until Adkins turned to Issa for a $60,000 loan that would eventually cost him his business after Adkins pledged his company's stock as collateral.

A similar loan from Issa was repaid the previous year. But this time, Adkins asked for a few more weeks to repay the loan--and Issa says he agreed.

Within days, however, Issa went to a judge and--under an Ohio law that did not require the debtor to be present--won a judgment for the outstanding $60,000.

Issa promptly called Adkins at home to declare that he now owned his auto security company, Adkins recalled. "I was completely floored," he said.

Why, after promising more time, did Issa go to court to collect?

Issa says he learned only after extending the loan that Adkins' company was saddled with mounting debts and was bordering on insolvency. Rather than risk losing his investment, he said he went to court for protection.

"We had every right to do so," he said. "There wasn't any stealing of any company."

Issa's partner at Quantum, Miles Hunsinger, also blames red ink for Adkins' troubles and the company takeover.

"If Darrell hadn't grabbed them up, someone else would have very shortly. They were done," Hunsinger said. "Darrell was sharp enough to understand that the basic premise of their design and their name held promise, and he took it and ran with it."

But Adkins said A.C. Custom was on solid financial ground and could have paid off the note as agreed.

Moreover, he charged that Issa had been scheming from the start to take over his company--a charge buttressed by Adkins' former bookkeeper.

The bookkeeper, Karen Brasdovich, said Issa had grilled her about Adkins' finances, including his late payment of bills. Only later, she says, did she suspect that Issa may have then used that information to seize the firm.

"He picked my brain. It really bothers me to this day that I fell for that," she said.

Issa said he did not recall the episode. Nor did he recall an alleged incident in the days after he took over A.C. Custom.

One of Issa's first tasks as the new boss was to remove an executive named Jack Frantz.

According to Frantz, Issa came into his office, placed a small box on the desk and opened it. Inside, he said, was a gun.

"He just showed it to me and said 'You know what this is?' " Frantz said.

Issa invited Frantz to hold the gun at one point and told him he had learned about guns and explosives during his military days, Frantz said. Because he was about to be fired, Frantz said he saw it as "pure intimidation."

The bookkeeper, Brasdovich, also recalled Issa having a gun at the company that day. "It was pretty terrifying," she said.

Issa confirmed that he wanted to remove Frantz--who years later was convicted in a telemarketing scheme--because he failed to collect outstanding bills.

But, as for having a gun, Issa said, "Shots were never fired. If I asked Jack to leave, then I think I had every right to ask Jack to leave. . . . I don't recall [having a gun]. I really don't. I don't think I ever pulled a gun on anyone in my life."

Issa said he moved quickly to pay off the company's creditors, partly with $7,000 in life savings. He wound up with the Steal Stopper name and product line, which he would sell for years to come.

Adkins blames the episode for triggering his slide into bankruptcy, family rifts, bouts with alcohol and a recent jail stint for drunk driving.

"It's been a rough 17 years," he said. "He's got $250 million, and I'm lucky if I can pay my taxes."

Adkins is still estranged from his sister, who sided with Issa in the dispute and runs his Cleveland facility even today.

"Darrell always worked his tail off, and I thought he was very fair," said the sister, Ernestine Brown. "But my family more or less disavowed me when I went to work for Darrell."

1982 Plant Fire Raises Suspicions

Perhaps the darkest chapter in the saga came Sept. 7, 1982, seven months after Issa took control of Steal Stopper.

Just before 3 a.m., a police officer spotted smoke billowing from Issa's Quantum manufacturing plant in Maple Heights near Cleveland.

Before the blaze was brought under control three hours later, a firefighter was seriously injured.

Issa said he was "flabbergasted" that investigators immediately began asking him and his partner "where we had been the night before." He told them he thought the fire began accidentally.

Investigators didn't think so. Case files from Maple Heights, the Ohio fire marshal and insurers pointed repeatedly to the likelihood of arson in the blaze, which officials estimated caused $800,000 in damage.

Although an accident could not be ruled out, the uneven and unnatural burn patterns made the blaze "suspicious in nature," the state concluded two months later. Flammable liquid appeared to have been poured on the only area not covered by fire sprinklers, investigators found.

Circumstantial evidence also aroused suspicion of arson.

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