The long-awaited trial of former executives of International Outsourcing Services, including three prominent El Paso businessmen who are accused of bilking manufacturers out of $250 million in an elaborate coupon-redemption scheme, is set to begin by the end of this year.
It has been almost eight years since the former CEO of IOS, Thomas “Chris” Balsiger, and 10 others were indicted on fraud charges by a federal grand jury in Wisconsin.
District Judge Charles Clevert Jr. has scheduled a final pre-trial hearing on Sept. 22 and has set a trial date of Oct. 26, according court documents.
But Balsiger is scrambling to find a new lawyer to represent him. His lawyer, Joseph “Sib” Abraham, a well-known criminal defense lawyer in El Paso, died in July. So Balsiger is representing himself until he can find a replacement.
The case is a complex one that has taken many twists and turns since the investigation began more than a decade ago, and Balsiger is arguing that seven months is not enough time for him to secure a new lawyer and for that lawyer to get up to speed on the case.
“No one can force me to get an incompetent attorney,” Balsiger told El Paso Inc. in a recent interview. “You’ve got to allow time.”
Balsiger, a businessman and mountaineer, is free on bail and lives in El Paso where he operates a land development business. He also owns a pallet supply business.
The 27-count indictment handed down on March 6, 2007 accuses Balsiger and 10 others of pocketing $250 million after deceiving manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark Corp., Kleenex, S.C. Johnson and Unilever into redeeming fraudulent coupons, according to court documents.
Since then, four of the defendants have accepted plea agreements and at least one more is preparing to plead guilty, court records show. Daxesh Patel has signed a plea agreement that prosecutors expect to be filed with the court soon, according to minutes from a recent scheduling conference.
Another defendant, Bruce A. Furr, was ordered on Jan. 6 by Judge Clevert to undergo a psychological examination to determine if he is competent to stand trial, since he is reported to have dementia. Furr is described in court documents as “almost 80 years old with deteriorating health.”
At a status hearing earlier this month, Balsiger identified El Paso lawyer Richard Esper as his likely substitute counsel, to replace Abraham.
Esper maintains it would be impossible for any competent lawyer to be ready for an October trial date, and he would need 18 months to prepare, according to court records. Given that other defense attorneys have had the last seven years to prepare, 18 months is fair and reasonable, he said.
The two other El Pasoans who were indicted are James C. Currey, who was president of Currey Adkins, an El Paso-based information technology firm; and Steven A. Furr, IOS executive vice president and board member.
They were indicted along with Bruce Furr, IOS board chair; Lance A. Furr, an executive vice president and board member; William L. Babler, CFO; Howard R. McKay, consultant and sales manager; Daxesh V. Patel, a coupon broker in New Jersey; Bharatkumar K. Patel, another coupon broker; and plant managers Ovidio H. Enriquez and David J. Howard.
The first to plead guilty to charges in the case were managers Enriquez and Howard, who each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice in April 2009. The other 26 counts, including wire fraud, were dropped. In return, the two men agreed to cooperate with the investigation, according to court records.
In September 2010, Lance Furr pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and Babler pleaded guilty to one count of misprision of a felony, or helping to conceal a felony, in March 2012.
Balsiger reaffirmed in a recent interview that he will never accept a plea deal.
“I am not going to plea for a crime I didn’t commit – that didn’t exist,” he said.
Balsiger alleges that “overzealous” U.S. attorneys in Milwaukee indicted him and the other IOS executives to distract from a failed terrorism probe, part of a 2003 coupon-fraud case that lasted six years and cost millions of dollars.
He also says the government has relied on information from an industry rival, NCH Marketing Services Inc. of Deerfield, Illinois, which wanted to harm IOS.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Ingraham has denied the accusations. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Balsiger has said he lives for the day when the case goes to trial so he can clear his name and file a civil suit against the government for malicious prosecution.
“I carry around a scarlet A,” he said.
Balsiger has summited six of the so-called Seven Summits, the highest mountains of each of the seven continents. Paintings of those mountains hang in his Westside office. One particularly large painting covers an entire wall.
“I’m not your normal guy,” said Balsiger, who has fought his case with the determination of a mountaineer.
But his summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador two years ago, Balsiger said, was probably his last, since his health has been bad. Balsiger, 61, works on staying fit by running up and down Mount Cristo Rey.
“I may be arrogant. My personality may not fit yours,” he said. “But I am not a crook and never was.”