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The tech bubble had not yet burst as Hank Asher strode up to the dais in early October 1999 at the Hyatt Regency in Fort Lauderdale. Ambition and high expectations permeated the audience of more than 300 who had packed the banquet hall to kick off the so-called DevCon '99, a gathering of software developers devoted to a programming language named Clarion. Asher, the day's keynote speaker, had become a minor deity in the Clarion world. He'd also struck it rich. Using that language, he'd built the Boca Raton-based Database Technologies Online, or DBT Online, which was primarily a database for law enforcement and private investigators. Need to find a guy? Give DBT Online his name, approximate age, and, bingo, you've got a list of addresses and phone numbers and a whole lot more.
Asher had sold his share of the company, garnering more than $100 million. The publicly traded DBT Online now had market capital of $500 million, but Asher had gone on to found a similar database company, eData, which also employed Clarion as a means to parse a database of billions of public and business records. Many in the audience had no doubt read some of the recent news stories about Asher's connection with Bahamian drug smugglers years ago, but in this New Economy of the Internet, there wasn't much reason to dwell on ancient history.
Asher, then 48 years old, wore the casual dress of a techie, a short-sleeved white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck. He sported a scraggly beard of gray and black and slightly disheveled hair that was receding a bit on the front sides. At 5-foot-10-inches, he was burly with a middle-age paunch and a full, round face.
In a baritone voice, Asher told the story of the first time he ran a report on himself at DBT Online: it found both his parents, his siblings, his in-laws, his ex-in-laws, his ex-wife, "her newest victim," all his old addresses, and those of his old neighbors and where they now lived. "Oh my God, what have we done?" he asked himself.
That's a question many have asked themselves after crossing Asher's path. As the brains behind Matrix, the fast-moving Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, a proposed 13-state database designed to find links between acts of terrorism and suspects with lightning searches of police, public, and commercial records, Asher recently stepped up as a major figure in the burgeoning homeland security effort.
Then, because of a checkered past, he was forced to take himself out of the game two weeks ago.
It was just the latest development in a long, turbulent personal history involving top-level disputes and allegations of illegal drug trafficking. In recent years, Asher has hassled with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which temporarily curtailed using DBT Online in 1999 after learning of Asher's alleged ties to drug smugglers. Two former board directors of the company he founded, Seisint Inc., have sued him for allegedly running roughshod over top executives and bribing other board directors to acquiesce to his wishes. Then, on August 29, he was forced to step down as a board member of Seisint, which is in the middle of contract negotiations with the state for the lucrative Matrix contract. The Seisint board is now scrambling to minimize Asher's profile.
According to friends and associates, Asher is a creative genius with an impulsive streak, a master manipulator, adept at corporate gamesmanship, and, some say, more secretive than Citizen Kane. Asher has grown rich turning personal data into a commodity, but he shuns public scrutiny.
"He's not a publicity seeker, by any means," contends Martha Barnett, a longtime friend. "He's not shy, he's just not someone who seeks out or wants to be in the press by nature. He's not a secretive person at all."
But Asher remains elusive to anyone who is not among his personal circle of friends. He lives in a $3 million house in a gated community in Boca Raton. Requests by New Times for interviews went unanswered, and many who know him are either unwilling to talk or cannot because they've signed confidentiality agreements.
Asher has been both the greatest asset and greatest liability of the companies he has built during the past decade. He's an entrepreneur who values risk and chafes under limitations. When his first company, Database Technologies, had grown highly successful in the mid-1990s, board directors and investors tried reining him in. Asher reacted like an enfant terrible, manipulating employees and directors from behind the scenes. The same struggle has been playing out at Seisint for the past few years. Now, with Seisint poised to play a major role in the nation's anti-terrorism effort, the company has ousted Asher from his director's seat.
If the past is any indication, however, Asher, who remains the majority stock holder in Seisint, still holds great sway over the company.
In introducing Asher at DevCon '99, Bruce Barrington, who created the Clarion program and is now a board director for Seisint, claimed that Asher had departed his home state of Indiana because his "efforts were underutilized," according to an article at the time in the trade journal Clarion Magazine. Asher, however, set the record straight at the podium: He was fired from his last job in Indiana on the grounds that he couldn't get along with people and that his ideas didn't work. He paused a beat after the admission. "I think I have proven that my ideas do work," he declared. The audience roared at the droll gloss over, but Asher's thorniness has indeed been as prominent as his innovation.