John visconti says he was thinking only of his son's future when he bought him a $220,000 Aston Martin sports car for his birthday -- no matter that the little guy was 3 years old.
"I had saved money for three years to pay for that as an investment for my son," Visconti told a lawyer for his estranged wife, whom he married when she was 20 and he was nearly 60.
At the time, the Aston Martin might have been just a pricey bone of contention in yet another acrimonious Beverly Hills breakup.
But that was before Visconti's luxury cars became an issue in the collapse of his Hollywood payroll services company, Axium International Inc., costing 550 employees their jobs, sticking thousands of other workers with worthless paychecks and unleashing a New York investment firm's allegations of massive fraud.
"These people created a lot of chaos, for a lot of companies and individuals," said Susanne Preissler, executive producer at Independent Media Inc., which covered hundreds of its crew members' bounced Axium checks. "I'm sitting here cleaning up their mess."
Visconti, 65 -- whose eclectic business ventures have included cosmetics, gourmet coffee beans and offshore banking -- bought Axium for $4 million in 2001. He grew it into one of the top three companies of its kind, with offices in Los Angeles, New York and London.
By all accounts, the Iranian immigrant with an adopted Italian surname had wrung substantial wealth from a decidedly unglamorous slice of show business -- handling payrolls for major studios and independent productions such as last year's critically acclaimed "The Savages."
Then the roof fell in.
Axium and its staffing subsidiary, Ensemble Chimes Global, which supplied contract workers to Fortune 500 companies and others, abruptly ceased operations Jan. 7 and filed a liquidation bankruptcy action the next day.
A week later, GoldenTree Asset Management, which had loaned Axium $130 million, sued Visconti and Chief Operating Officer Ronald D. Garber in federal court in Los Angeles, alleging that they pillaged the company while failing to pay millions in employment taxes.
Suit cites luxury cars
They used Axium money for the Aston Martin, a Bentley coupe, a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a Maserati Quattroporte, according to the lawsuit, which has since been refiled in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The complaint also accused them of spending Axium funds for private jet flights, vacations, jewelry, political contributions, legal fees for their divorces and weekly cash payments of $8,000 each, delivered by armored cars.
And then there was the apartment for Amber Smith, 35, a model and actress who has graced the cover of Playboy and stars in the erotic "Sin City Diaries" on Cinemax.
"Whatever lavish things they spent their money on, I hope they enjoyed it," said former Axium employee Chastity Davis, "because these guys are going to hell in gasoline pants."
Visconti and Garber declined to comment. Their lawyer denied the allegations and accused GoldenTree of exaggerating "an ordinary business dispute" and driving Axium out of business.
"The salacious allegations leveled against Mr. Visconti and Mr. Garber are a transparent and misplaced attempt to deflect attention from GoldenTree's own highly questionable role in Axium's demise," attorney Ellyn S. Garofalo said.
GoldenTree lawyer Wayne S. Flick called the dispute anything but ordinary.
"Rather, it is an extraordinary case of massive fraud, theft, self-dealing and the looting of a company by its principals," he said.
Visconti bought Axium in December 2001, became chief executive and hired Garber, a former general counsel to the Koo Koo Roo restaurant chain, to run it.
Headquarters was a building at 5800 Wilshire Blvd. and an adjacent house converted to offices that Visconti had fortified with bulletproof glass, former employees said.
"That house was like a fortress," said Randy Klinenberg, who headed a software unit.
Born in Iran in 1942, Visconti moved with his family to the United States as a child and later spent 14 years in Europe before settling in Southern California.
"I knew him in London," recalled Arnold Soloway, who founded the talent agency Artists Group, "but his name wasn't Visconti."
Soloway knew him then as nightclub owner John Manocheri, and the lawsuit says he's also gone by Bijan Manoochehri. By the 1980s, he used Visconti and operated a 150-seat restaurant by that name in Santa Monica.
An associate said Visconti's name is from an Italian nanny who raised him after his mother died when he was 4.
"He became a citizen in 1994 and changed his name for no other reason than simplifying things," said the associate, who was not authorized to comment because of the lawsuit.
A private investigator working for Visconti's estranged wife, Maha, 27, found six Social Security numbers linked to his name, according to a report in the divorce file.