The Matrix: Unloaded

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The same year Asher left DBT, 1998, the company contracted with Florida to purge the state's voting rolls of felons, who are barred from voting under a provision of the Florida constitution. In the aftermath of the contested presidential election in Florida, the company, by then owned by Atlanta-based Choicepoint, was criticized for having identified legitimate voters as felons. Many of them were black, a demographic group that largely voted for Al Gore in 2000.

By 1999, the only tie left between Asher and DBT was his stock holding, but it was enough of a connection to send the company reeling. In May of that year the FBI and DEA suspended their contracts with DBT because of Asher's Bahamian past. During a routine inspection of the DEA's Miami office, a five-year-old memo concerning Asher came to light, according to an article at the time in the Miami Herald. Written by DEA security officer Jerry Castillo, the 1994 memo stated that Asher was "known to Miami Enforcement Group 10 and is listed in NADDIS [DEA's internal intelligence computer system] as a pilot with suspected Bahamian drug connections."

Just as Seisint would one day be forced to do, DBT management launched a damage control effort by distancing the company from Asher. One company spokesman even denied that Asher founded DBT, rather he'd founded a company that was later merged into DBT. The board forced Asher to sell his 23 percent share of stock, for which he received $117.5 million from an October public offering. In addition, three board directors with ties to Asher, including his sister Sari Zalcberg and Jack Hight, were forced out.

Asher took his money and set the stage for battle with a new set of board directors.

When Seisint announced Asher's resignation late last month, the company did its best at spin, calling the move "part of a management transition plan initiated 18 months ago." In fact, the company has struggled for years with its strong-willed founder, and there's little reason to believe that Asher, still the major shareholder, won't continue to wield great influence within the company.

In October 1999, BankAtlantic Bancorp, which is a holding company of BankAtlantic, entered into an alliance agreement with Asher and Seisint. Bancorp invested a large sum in Seisint, and, as a gesture of goodwill, Seisint bought BankAtlantic stock. Alan B. Levan, who was chairman and CEO of Bancorp, and John Abdo, the company's vice chairman, then became directors on Seisint's board. Levan and Abdo, however, more or less remained outsiders on the board, which also included Jack Hight, Martha Barnett, and Bruce Barrington, the creator of Clarion.

The new directors soon found that Asher routinely transferred personnel to his pet projects, despite the objections of company management, according to court documents. Seisint fell behind in an important project as a result, and the company experienced a cash-flow crisis by the summer of 2001. In October of that year, Levan issued a confidential memo to the board that began, "Speaking on behalf of Jack Abdo and myself, we believe there is a pattern of dysfunctionality and deceit here that creates real liability for our founder and the Board of Directors.

"Hank Asher, without the authority of the Board, is hiring and firing, spending corporate funds, committing important resources of the company and intimidating and harassing its officers and directors, including the CEO.

"Make no mistake, there will be shareholder litigation. The full truth of Hank's background, his activities and behavior at his prior company and this company will be investigated and come to light."

Levan urged, as he had in the past, that the board remove Asher from any role in the company. When the board declined to do so, the two men resigned and sued Asher and the directors soon afterward for mismanaging Atlantic Bancorp's investment. The lawsuit is pending.

Seisint took another blow in August when Asher's Bahamian ghosts rose again. Asher had approached Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials soon after the September 11 attacks and proposed a database system for tracking terrorists. With $1.6 million appropriated by the Florida Legislature, the company entered into a pilot program with FDLE for the Matrix system. The full search power of Matrix won't be in place until multiple states have included their databases. That may take awhile. When FDLE head Daryl McLaughlin learned of Asher's past from a newspaper reporter, he called for an official investigation before further committing to Matrix. The inquiry hasn't been concluded, but McLaughlin calls Asher's removal from Seisint's board "a positive development."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson