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Bill Hartman sells sunny Florida to Britons fed up with the damp English weather, high taxes and a skyrocketing cost of living. He does so by publishing newspapers blaring such headlines as “Florida With Confidence,” and holding weekend immigration seminars throughout England. Hartman, a 66-year-old former construction company manager in the London suburb of Bracknell, is a visa consultant. He specializes in getting Britons E2 visas — investor visas geared to foreigners who open or invest in businesses in the United States. A one-stop immigration shop, Hartman helps clients find businesses through a network of business brokers throughout the United States, many of them in Florida. He even helps them find homes. E2 visas are “the only answer for a lot of people,” says Hartman, during a phone interview from his suburban London office. “It opens the door to a lot of people to start a business, which they couldn’t do here because of the high taxes.” But not everyone is so bullish on E2 visas, nor on Hartman. Hartman and E2 visas are at the center of several complaints from Britons around Florida, who claim they lost their life savings after buying ailing businesses through the E2 visa program and Hartman. In fact, several such disgruntled British citizens have formed a support group in Southwest Florida called Brits-in-a-Bind. In addition, the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Miami and London offices recently began investigating allegations that Hartman is part of an E2 visa fraud ring. The allegations were made in a federal lawsuit filed in Miami two weeks ago by Brits Raza and Caroline Mehdi. Problems with E2 visas are hardly new. Critics of the program say it encourages middle-class foreigners to gamble away their savings and forces them back to their country if their business fails. “People have false expectations,” says Hugh Hunter, vice counsel of the British Consulate in Orlando, Fla. Since taking his job three years ago, Hunter says, he has been deluged with calls from Britons complaining about their E2 visas. Some blame Britons rather than outside parties for failing to properly check out the businesses before buying them. “They bring it on themselves,” says Patricia Kawaja, president of the Florida Association of British Business. Kawaja also runs the Florida page of the Union Jack newspaper, a British publication that runs ads from visa consultants and immigration attorneys — as well as articles warning of the dangers of E2 visas. She says she hears complaints about E2 visas all the time. E2s are part of a category called E visas, or treaty trader and investor visas, as they are formally known. E visas have been around as long as the United States has had trade treaties with other nations — with England, since 1815. They were intended to offer foreign companies a chance to open branch offices and do business in the United States and give foreigners with some means the opportunity to relocate to the United States and contribute to the U.S. economy. In the U.S., a typical British E2 visa user would be a British company that “wants to open an office here to export Cadillacs and import Cadbury chocolates,” says Ira Kurzban, a prominent Miami immigration attorney. But increasingly, thanks in part to Hartman and other visa consultants, many of the visa recipients are middle-class British residents. Hartman and others have made the visas available to middle-class Britons, who often can obtain the visas with as little as a $100,000 to invest — not an insurmountable figure for homeowners willing to sell their homes and cash-out. “I don’t get any millionaires,” Hartman acknowledges. Hartman, who says he has been helping Britons obtain E2 visas for 20 years, runs various businesses such as Hartman Homes Group and Florida Business and Investment Consultants. He finds businesses for Britons through a network of brokers throughout the United States. Among his associates was Ira Levy, the former head of the nonimmigrant visa branch of the U.S. Embassy in London, who later became a visa consultant. Levy, who could not be reached for comment, is now retired. In his newspaper, Hartman boasts that his firm and Levy’s, called U.S. Visa Consultants, together have a 100 percent success rate in obtaining E2 visas. Hartman says he secures about 20 E2 visas a year. The majority of his clients, he says, go to Florida, where they are drawn by the sunny weather. It’s not known how many E2 visa recipients come to Florida each year. In all, nearly 15,000 E2 visas were granted to Britons in 1998, making them one of the biggest recipients of the visas. (Japanese are the single biggest group, with 63,441 granted in 1998.) The INS has no figures on how many of those people remain in the United States. The visas have a significant catch: They are up for renewal every five years, at the embassy’s discretion, and are only good while the business is viable and the individual is contributing to the U.S. economy. If the business fails, the owner must return to his or her native country. There is no green card or permanent residency granted with E2 visas. Canada has a similar visa to the E2, called an entrepreneur visa. Unlike the U.S., however, Canada requires an applicant to have an extensive background in small-business operation. Also unlike the U.S., Canada does not send the individual back to his or her country if the business fails. (“We understand anyone’s business can go sour,” says Rene Mercier, senior spokesman for the Canadian immigration department.) Additionally, Canada’s entrepreneur visa is permanent. “I tell the people, ‘Make sure it’s a good business because if the business fails, you lose the visa,’ ” says Kurzban, the immigration attorney. “ I say, ‘Be very, very careful.’ “ No such strong warnings come from Hartman, according to several clients. And Hartman himself acknowledges that he discourages his clients from hiring lawyers to review a deal before closing it. “We are quite capable of reading a contract and lease,” he says, adding that many clients do not want to pay “$130 to $180 an hour for an attorney.” In his manual, Hartman also advises clients to hire accountants who are already employed by the business they are purchasing rather than someone independent. “We do suggest you continue to engage the CPA who has been working for the seller,” the manual states, “as he/she will have the intimate knowledge of the previous and present accounts of the subject business and this could be very useful to you initially.” That’s not the advice that Mike Bagley, chairman of the state board of the Florida Business Brokers Association, would give. Not only should a business buyer always have an independent accountant, he says, but “each side — the buyer and the seller — should have his or her own attorney. This is highly recommended. There should be a fair playing field. If the buyer doesn’t want a lawyer, we make them sign a waiver saying so.” Hartman’s method of charging fees differs from client to client. Sometimes, he gets paid a visa consulting fee by the client — about $4,000 — and sometimes he gets paid a portion of the business brokers’ commission after a deal closes. ‘WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE’ Three Hartman clients, all of whom live in the West Florida town of Port Charlotte, share similar stories. Take the case of Mike Whitney. Whitney, 52, who owned four fish and chips shops outside of Bristol, England, decided to sample “a bit of the American dream” after 20 years of visits to the U.S. So he hired Hartman, who put him in touch with VR Business Brokers in Port Charlotte. Broker Mike Omerzu led him to an air-conditioning repair store, which he bought in 1996, moving his wife and four children to Florida. Whitney says Hartman and Omerzu told him he did not need a separate lawyer, that one closing attorney would handle everything. “I did not do what I should have done with my business experience,” he says. Whitney did show his accountant some financial data on the business and his accountant, he says, “did not wave any red flags.” A couple of months after he took over the business, Whitney says, he made a startling discovery: Files on his computer hard drive contained spreadsheets with “substantially” different profit and loss figures than what he was originally shown. He presented his evidence to the seller, threatened to take him to court and got the bulk of his $85,000 loan erased, though he kept the business. “If I hadn’t had the proof, I would have been back in England within six months. I would have lost it all,” says Whitney, who nevertheless is in the process of selling his business and “catching the next boat back” because of the negative experience. “These have been the worst years of my life,” he says. Both Hartman and Omerzu confirm Whitney’s story about the profit and loss statements and say they both helped broker a settlement with the former owner. The whereabouts of the former owner of the store are unknown and he could not be reached for comment. Then one day two years ago, Whitney learned that other Brits in Florida were also finding their American dreams collapsing. Terry Butterworth, a now 66-year-old former car wash owner, strolled into Whitney’s store, looking for other Brits in town who were having problems with their businesses. ‘WE’VE BEEN SOLD JUNK’ The Butterworths had purchased in 1995 a shower-and-glass-manufacturing business called Pro Glass. Like Whitney, he and his wife, Frances, acquired it through Hartman and VR Brokers after seeing one of Hartman’s ads. The Butterworths purchased it for $150,000, with $95,000 down and a note for the remainder. The rent at the store was too high, they say, and they wound up putting money from their pension into the business. Realizing there was no way they could make their loan payments, they moved the business to a cheaper location. Making matters worse, they say, the seller violated a noncompete clause and began working at another glass company in town. “We’ve all been sold junk,” says Butterworth. “We jumped on a sinking ship.” Hartman, for his part, says the Butterworths, who are both in their 60s, are “not suited” for the glazing business, adding that they bought the business for their son, who wound up not coming over. Meanwhile, the Butterworths, living off their pensions, and both running the shop, are barely hanging on. They have no employees and they say they are in violation of their E2 visa, which requires them to employ several Americans. Their E2 visa expires in April and they’d like to return to England, where they have a cottage. The Moores have a similar story. Adrian and Sybil Moore, who both worked for large corporations in England, came to Florida because “we wanted a change,” says Adrian. They met Hartman and Omerzu at an immigration exhibition in London where the two had a booth. The couple wound up buying a fence company, Barina & Sons, in Port Charlotte, putting down $125,000 on the $225,000 purchase price. Their loan payments to the seller would be about $2,000 a month. The Moores also agreed to employ the owner’s son. Soon after closing, the Moores learned that the owner had filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy and that the son had a felony conviction — two things, they say, that would have changed their decision to buy the business. Based on the revenue, Moore feels he paid twice what the business is worth. Making matters worse, Barina set up another fence company a few miles away. Barina acknowledges setting up the business, but adds that he has tried not to take away “too many” customers from the Moores. Barina also acknowledges the bankruptcy and felony conviction but says Moore also violated the contract by not keeping him on for three months. “These people had no idea what they were doing,” says Barina, who says he had been trying to sell his business for two years. “They got into a business they had absolutely no experience in.” Omerzu, who says he’s been working with Hartman since 1993, says many of the E2 visa investors are responsible for their own business decisions. He says he has brokered business purchases for about 30 couples seeking E2 visas and insists he has many clients who are happy with the businesses they bought through him. Many of the complaints, he says, come from people who either “don’t understand the business or they aren’t successful at it.” SATISFIED CUSTOMERS Hartman says he feels badly that some of his clients were duped. “I understand we are playing with people’s futures and their life savings,” he says, “and it is absolutely not something to be taken lightly.” He, too, insists he has many satisfied customers. Among them is Steve Myatt-Pearson, a Hartman client who moved to Port Charlotte with his wife, Jackie, in 1999. Myatt-Pearson says Hartman did a good job helping them secure their E2 visa and find their ceramic tile business. (Myatt-Pearson complains, however, about the E2 visa program in general. “I feel insulted by the American government,” he says. “I paid $150,000 for my business, I’m employing eight staffers and taking in $600,000 a year and in five years, they can say, ‘Goodbye.’ We don’t even get a chance to try the lottery for a green card. We have four years left of uncertainty. We want to adapt to your way of life, contribute to our communities and contribute to charities, and we are being treated like second class-citizens.”) Another satisfied Hartman customer is Steve Hole, who, along with his wife, Jill, obtained an E2 visa through Hartman in 1998. But unlike some of the other couples cited in this article, the Holes used Hartman only to help them get their visa, identifying and purchasing a business on their own by using the Florida Business Brokers Web site. An experienced businessman in England who worked for British Airways, Hole says he and his accountant went over the sale “with a fine-tooth comb” before closing the deal to buy a New Smyrna Beach employment agency. He bought only the company’s goodwill, but did not take over the corporation or its debts. The Holes quadrupled their business in a year and are delighted with their decision to hire Hartman and immigrate to the U.S. Hole says he finds it hard to believe that Hartman could be involved in any kind of fraud ring, as charged in the lawsuit. “Bill did a fantastic job,” he says. But Hartman may soon be answering questions from Immigration and Naturalization Service. In November, the INS agreed to investigate the Mehdis’ visa fraud allegations out of its London and Miami offices, confirms Miguel Domingo, supervisor of the Miami district fraud unit. However, he acknowledges it is not a high-priority case. Meanwhile, British investors keep crossing the Atlantic under the E2 visa program, much to the chagrin of some observers. Hunter of the British Consulate feels the visa wasn’t designed for people like the Whitneys, Moores and Butterworths, but instead was designed for the wealthy. “The problem comes when people use it as a way to come to this country and don’t have a lot of money to spend,” he says. “It’s very sad.” Adds Kawaja, of the Florida Association of British Businesses: “Some of them do not realize that an E2 visa is not a green card. They come off the banana boat. I say to them, ‘You’re in a foreign country — how can you not check with the British Consulate, the British-American Chamber of Commerce, or the Florida Bar before hiring an attorney or buying a business?’ I tell people, ‘This is Florida, the land of the swindle.’ “

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