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The Darthies 

The SF Weekly Noble Villain Awards. And the winner is ... you!

Wednesday, Aug 16 2006
Noble villains and incorrigible heroes, such as The Incredibles' morally conflicted "Syndrome," or the X-Men's principled "Magneto," remind us that good is not always good. Bad often isn't what it's cracked up to be. And gray areas can sometimes be black-and-white.

This week SF Weekly honors a trio of real-life beneficent rogues who, in the final analysis, may have used their powers to advance the greater good.

A mysterious financier residing in Switzerland has targeted penny stock peddlers of the sort San Francisco seems keen to pin its economic hopes upon, including a Palo Alto biotech firm. The financier's repeated schemes involved too-good-to-be-true loans that never materialized. They put small-cap impresarios on alert that targeting the gullible is a sword that can cut both ways.

A deceased San Francisco political battler's legacy lives on in a plan, up for approval this month, to preserve San Francisco's few original natural areas. Against all odds the plan may achieve its natural-preservation goal, thanks to a last-minute change of heart by our troubled hero.

A local cabbie, like most of his brethren, guns a boat of a gas-guzzler around San Francisco, burning away at least 50 gallons of gasoline a week. He'd like to change his noxious ways, however. He's proffered a plan that, if adopted by the Taxi Commission or the Board of Supervisors, could help improve the city and save the planet.

Just as the dust settles from the fantasy-business-plan, pump 'n' dump orgy known as the dot-com boom and bust, a new skyline is emerging on the south side of town dedicated to another form of gambling known as the biotech industry.

It's a line of business based mostly on vain hopes, squandered capital, and endless exaggerations. Sure, some companies, such as Genentech and Amgen, hit it big. The industry as a whole, however, is a bleeder. U.S. publicly traded biotech companies cumulatively lost $41 billion from 1990 to 2003, according to an Ernst & Young study.

In a situation like this the onus is on investors — and on city leaders and residents hoping to gain a boost from such a speculative industry — to sift through Biotech companies' financial promises with great skepticism.

In a bemusing bit of turnabout, a certain Pini Ben David seems to have recently placed a caveat emptor burden on the companies themselves.

One such outfit is Human BioSystems of Palo Alto. It is a company that has attempted to develop for approval a process for preserving blood, and recently bought an obscure ethanol company.

According to the company's financial filings, Human BioSystems signed an agreement with Ben David in October 2004 to be loaned 2.3 million Euros (currently 1.8 million U.S. dollars), with 23,000,000 of the company's common stock to be put up as collateral. For a struggling biotech company with no proven product, such a transaction might have seemed too good to be true, given the 3 percent interest rate, and penny stocks aren't exactly the most rock-solid collateral in the world.

It apparently was too good to be true.

Bin David didn't produce the loan, the filings said. He didn't return all the stock, either. Worse, Human BioSystems management was led to believe that some of the shares may have been sold. So they had to go about the expensive and time-consuming process of canceling the Bin David shares, issuing new ones, and reporting the entire embarrassing episode to the public. (Human BioSystems CEO Harry Masuda did not return a call and an e-mail requesting an interview.)

Human BioSystems wasn't the only company to have such a run-in with a European investor named Pini Bin David.

A Google search produced a press release on a stock investors' bulletin board describing how a different small technology company issued 150 million shares in the name of Pini Ben David as collatoral for a potential loan, but that, "if this loan does not close shortly, these shares will be returned to the company and cancelled," the posted release said.

A Carson City, Nev.-listed company called Palomar Enterprises, meanwhile, appears to have received similar treatment at Bin David's hands. Last year, that company issued 52 million shares and gave them to Bin David as collateral for a supposed loan that never appeared.

"He was a fungible rogue who can pick up and move on, it seemed like," said Brent Fouch, CFO of Palomar, whose business appears to have consisted so far of trying and failing to launch an aircraft services business, trying and failing to start an herbal remedy business, and trying and failing to launch a pizza chain, and, most recently, buying and fixing up real estate. "At the end of the day the promises kept coming, nothing was delivered, and our stock was out there," Fouch said of Bin David.

Far be it from me to applaud the apparently dubious financial practices of an Israeli-Swiss financier. But I find it somehow reassuring that there's a rogue out there keeping small-cap stock peddlers awake at night.

On Aug. 21, the city's Recreation and Parks commission will consider the final version of a 700-page plan with a seemingly modest goal: set aside and protect the occasional San Francisco patches of native grass and bushes so that this and future generations might be able to view glimpses of aboriginal San Francisco the way it's been for eons.

Despite the humble purpose, however, the plan has been the subject of a half-decade range war.

An ordinarily mild-mannered group of outdoors-lovers, whose hobby involves identifying and preserving native urban-dwelling grasses, bushes, and trees, has for four years been politically assaulted by locals keen to keep their dogs running loose on these plots of land.

The dog people have been joined by an odd consortium of activists who oppose cutting trees of any kind, even in cases where naturalists cut non-native weed trees to preserve native species. Also joining the anti-plant cause are feral cat fanciers, who, believe it or not, are a viable San Francisco interest group who don't believe in capturing and relocating domestic cat species gone wild.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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