The Grand Slammer

Crooks abound in the world of long distance. But it takes a really good crook to steal from the other crooks.

"Oh, Lynn and I were there because we're still working on the house," Kim remembers Soreide answering.

"Spare me the details. What did you buy?"

"A vase."

Colby Katz
Donna Kim, former president of Accutel Communications, has become the federal government's key witness in a case against her previous employer, Arne Soreide.
Colby Katz
Donna Kim, former president of Accutel Communications, has become the federal government's key witness in a case against her previous employer, Arne Soreide.

"Fourteen thousand friggin' dollars for a what?" Kim asked.

"A vase."

Accutel's money wasn't going to pay just for overpriced furnishings, federal prosecutors allege. Soreide started to fund another company. In the fall of 1998, a group of investors and maritime businessmen led by fellow Norwegian Willie Hansen had concocted a business plan to start a cruise-ferry service from Tampa to the Yucatan Peninsula. They even had a boat lined up: the Scotia Prince, which ran from Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, in the summer. The company was to be called American Viking Lines.

To set the company sailing, the entrepreneurs needed an investor. While in New York, Hansen happened to run into a captain he knew from Norwegian Cruise Line. "They chit-chatted, and he explained what he wanted to do," recalls Ron Ardis, who was hired to be the new company's marketing director. "The captain said he'd done a lot of research on this himself, and he had a cousin who might be interested."

That cousin was Arne Soreide.

American Viking Line's maiden voyage was on November 13, 1998. "The response in the marketplace was tremendous," Ardis remembers. According to the federal indictment, Soreide sent a total of $605,105 in Accutel funds to American Viking Lines. Then, without notice, Soreide's weekly payments stopped coming. By December, the second lease fee on the Scotia Prince was due, and American Viking didn't have the money. "He was indicating [the money] was coming through some real estate holding he was selling," Ardis recalls. "When that didn't happen, the ship came back, and basically [its owners] had given [Soreide and Hansen] an ultimatum: If the charter payment wasn't wired then, they'd cease operation and sail the ship back to Portland."

The wire didn't come. After 16 round-trip voyages, American Viking went bust. Scotia Prince sailed back to Maine on January 5, 1999. "The ironic thing was that during the six months we started booking, the ship was full," Ardis says. "If we could have lasted another month, we would have had enough revenue to be self-sufficient."

Seeing Accutel money flowing to other companies, Donna Kim began to grow skeptical of Soreide. In early 2000, she confronted her employer. If Accutel was a legitimate long-distance company, she asked, why was it paying money to a cruise line and real estate companies?

"He told me it was none of my fucking business," Kim told the grand jury. "My job was to just do what I was told to do and not ask questions. 'Loose lips sink ships.' I was told that on a regular basis."

Around the same time, Kim became a victim of the scam: Accutel slammed and crammed her home phone. "I still can't figure that one out," she admitted.

Kim nevertheless continued to do what she was told. Although she had the lofty title of Accutel president, her job was primarily to be an assistant to Soreide. Her salary of $45,000, a paltry amount for an executive of a multimillion-dollar telecom, was evidence that her position was something of a ruse. Even though Soreide was in fact Accutel's CEO, he did not list himself as a company officer on state records. "The whole purpose behind me being there was [Soreide] was never, ever going to be called to testify because he was never actually an officer of any sort," Kim told the grand jury. "His wife was, Lynn Soreide. My job was that Lynn never, ever, ever had to go to any of these hearings or get involved or hear about or read or anything. My job depended on that."

Slamming and cramming complaints against Accutel continued. State regulators, becoming aware of the nationwide scam, clamped down on the problem. The Florida Public Service Commission in July 1999 threatened Accutel with a record $1.7 million fine unless the company could prove false all 171 complaints the commission had received. On March 29, 2000, the Kentucky Public Service Commission ordered Accutel to respond to similar complaints.

Soreide apparently realized he couldn't operate Accutel under constant threat of fines and state hearings. On December 20, 2000, Accutel attorney Mario D. German placed the company in Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, listing $3.2 million in debt and $881 in assets.

WorldCom attorney Allan S. Reiss, whose client was owed $1.5 million, tried to dispute the bankruptcy, alleging that "the Soreides stripped Accutel of substantially all of its assets to the detriment and harm of its creditors," according to court records.

Kim corroborates WorldCom's claim. Before filing for bankruptcy, Soreide diverted Accutel revenue to his wife and the real estate companies, she alleged in court. The bankruptcy filing, Kim told the grand jury, "needed to show there was no money going in. So then everything was then funneled through 100 Sample Realty and 150 Sample Realty." Still, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Raymond B. Ray discharged Accutel's debt on October 29, 2001.

As a result, Soreide walked away from $3.2 million in arrears, all the while reaping the benefits of real-estate holdings allegedly purchased with Accutel money.

He appeared to have pulled off the perfect scam. It seems, though, he didn't anticipate that Kim would blow the whistle. In late 2000, months after having left Accutel, she received a visit from an FBI agent who was investigating Soreide and Accutel. Kim told her story, and the agent in turn set up an appointment with federal prosecutor Neil Karadbil. Then she testified before the grand jury. "It was awesome," she says of testifying. "It was like my body kicked into gear. I was nervous at first, but I realized everyone was really pleasant. They wanted to listen. It was a wonderful experience I don't think I'll ever forget."

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