Joseph Medawar was a smooth-talking Hollywood producer with a timely pitch to turn the Department of Homeland Security into a television series. And he seemed to have the juice to make it happen.
His lead actress brainstormed with two influential California congressmen, Christopher Cox and Dana Rohrabacher, as well as House Homeland Security Committee staffers, on how to make the show more realistic.
His film crew shot action scenes at the Orange County Sheriff's Department, and Sheriff Michael S. Carona and his son wound up in the show's trailer.
And Medawar's political contributions smoothed the way for a photo with President Bush, attendance at invitation-only GOP events and an introduction to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Staples Center skybox.
The television project was a sham, the FBI alleges, and Medawar was arrested last month on suspicion of perpetrating an elaborate stock fraud that fleeced small investors of $5.5 million. Investigators say he diverted the money to maintain a lavish lifestyle.
If anyone had checked, they would have found that Medawar had a paper trail of business disputes and lawsuits going back 15 years, one of which drew FBI attention. Yet, he pulled off his alleged scam under the noses of top local law enforcement and national security officials.
"How did anybody buy his act?" said acting coach Sal Dano, who attended a meeting two years ago at the Peninsula Hotel to assemble a production team for Medawar's series.
After watching Medawar introduce some of his associates as retired admirals and generals, Dano said, he couldn't get out of the meeting fast enough.
Medawar "reeked of a con man," Dano said. "Why didn't they notice what I noticed?"
Rohrabacher, a Huntington Beach Republican who has been interviewed by the FBI about the case, said, "It's clear in retrospect there were some problems with Mr. Medawar."
However, Rohrabacher said he was unaware of Medawar's history of litigation, which he found not to be that unusual for a Hollywood businessman. Likewise, he said he never thought twice about the braggadocio.
"When you're talking about Hollywood, flash and exaggeration is standard operating procedure," he said.
Medawar is in federal custody and unavailable for comment. His defense lawyer and family have said they would have no comment on the case.
The project's lead actress and co-producer, Alison Heruth-Waterbury, said she is cooperating with authorities but limited her comments on the advice of her attorney.
"This is sickening to me. It's thrown my life into an upside-down tailspin," she said. "With all the important people attached to this, I think everyone thought it was legitimate and moving forward.... A lot of people were hurt by it, including me."
Some of Medawar's vaunted connections were real, others were inflated. An FBI affidavit says the White House has denied backing Medawar's project. So has the Homeland Security Department. But one department official recalled conversations last year with Medawar and Heruth-Waterbury.
"They said they had lots of money for the show ... and it looked like they were going to put something together," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the investigation.
The producer and his partners repeatedly cited Rohrabacher and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca as program backers, the Homeland Security official said, adding that Medawar also dropped one Hollywood name after another.
"I am sure if Louis B. Mayer were alive, he would have mentioned him too," the official said.
Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said the sheriff never endorsed the show.
"If an individual tells the sheriff an idea for something like a movie, a book or a TV series, and he likes the idea, he will say it's a good idea," Whitmore said. "As far as I know, that's as far as the sheriff went with this individual."
But at least one investor, a Baca supporter, said he put in $20,000 for a stake in Medawar's production company after attending a Beverly Hills dinner that included a tribute to Baca and a promotion for the show. Baca's press spokesman said he had no record of the sheriff attending such an event.
In Orange County, Medawar was allowed to use the sheriff's facilities for a September 2003 video shoot. Jon Fleischman, a spokesman for Carona, said the sheriff knew the filmmakers were taking video footage and received county counsel approval for the shooting. Medawar "came recommended to the department as a legitimate filmmaker" and "apparently misled" members of Congress as well as representatives of federal, state and local law enforcement, Fleischman said.
Medawar and Heruth-Waterbury posed for a picture at a Beverly Hills fundraiser with Asa Hutchinson, who at the time was the Department of Homeland Security's undersecretary for border and transportation security.