Paul Bax was asleep when he got the call. It was May 8, and he'd finished working his graveyard shift for the U.S. Postal Service. He was being summoned to testify in one of the oddest trials in Kansas City memory.
Bax wasn't blowing off a subpoena. Rather, this was his first notice that Isreal Owen Hawkins was trying to get him on the stand. By then, the prosecution had rested its case against Hawkins, the founder and CEO of Petro America, who is accused of securities fraud ("Fleecing the Flock," October 28, 2010).
So Bax, a proud father of two straight-A students and an investor in Petro America, hopped out of bed, donned a two-piece suit and zipped downtown to the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Missouri. He was Hawkins' first witness - but not the first sign that Hawkins was in trouble.
There's a saying: A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Hawkins is no lawyer, but he has eschewed court-appointed representation in favor of undertaking his own defense. If he loses, his prison sentence could total 79 years.
Hawkins is used to putting himself in charge. The onetime pastor named himself CEO of Petro America, which he called an "energy arbitrageur." He bragged that the supposed petroleum giant had assets of more than $284 billion.
That would have made the Kansas City company one of the world's largest corporations. But most people didn't hear the name Petro America until 2010, when federal prosecutors dismissed the enterprise as a sham and indicted Hawkins and others on charges including fraud and money laundering.
Hawkins, prosecutors say, collected a $7.2 million kitty from the alleged racket. Many of Petro America's investors were members of Kansas City's African-American churches who saw Hawkins as a trustworthy man of the cloth.
Bax, who bought 20 million shares of Petro America, is still one of the Hawkins faithful. "I believe this is nothing more than a stronghold against a company with considerable assets," he testified last week. If only the government would get out of Petro America's way, Bax said, then he might see a return on the thousands of dollars he has invested in the company. "When the company trades, it's going to offer me all kinds of opportunities," he said on the stand.
His testimony veered into the realm of abstract finance theory, suggesting that U.S. fiat currency was about to be supplanted and that Petro America's supposed gold-mine contracts looked good to federal authorities.
"Let's face it, our government is broke," Bax told the court. "And the gold mines are an attractive asset."
Prosecutors say the land containing Petro's supposed gold mines holds piles of dirt.
U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes had to interrupt Bax a few times to get him focused on answering Hawkins' questions and not disappearing down conspiracy rabbit holes. But he stopped Hawkins many more times, mainly to remind the defendant about court procedures and rules - things that Hawkins' attorney would have known, if he'd had one.
Hawkins' best shot at defending himself came when he cross-examined Devin Fields, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service's criminal division, whose testimony laid out why the IRS believed Petro America to have been bogus. (Hawkins at one point called his sister to the stand, but that didn't go his way. He couldn't get her to agree that Petro America had once shared office space with her company.)
Fields spent the opening moments of his testimony taking questions from Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Nelson. Then he played recorded telephone conversations in which Hawkins claimed that a Hollywood producer was interested in the company's success. Hawkins said the Lord favored his oil company.
"That's a frequent statement on the calls," Fields testified, "that God blessed the company."
Hawkins failed to land any significant blows when he had his chance to query Fields, though he did get the agent to acknowledge that no evidence existed to suggest that Hawkins implored investors to buy Petro America stock.
To the IRS, that hasn't mattered much. For one thing, securities regulators in Kansas and Missouri had issued cease-and - desist orders to stop the company from selling stock. "You never gave any risk analysis," Fields told Hawkins. "It was all, 'This is going to happen.' "
Hawkins managed to duck the potentially awkward situation of testifying in his own defense, which, given that he's acting as his own attorney, could have resulted in his answering his own questions. (None of the other four defendants in the Petro America case testified on their own behalf.) He presented his case directly to the jury.
"I may not be as sophisticated as some lawyers, but I can only speak to you from my heart," he told jurors while explaining how he tried to take care of shareholders. He said he had run Petro America like a family business.
The trial is expected to conclude this week, almost a month after its April 17 start. Oh, those poor jurors.