Some of the investors traveled from far away to attend the opening of the first Orange County Chopper restaurant in New York, believing they owned part of the establishment.
But it was a cruel joke. Their names did not figure on the list of owners.
“There were a lot of people, and we were all supposed to be partners and allies of the joint venture, but no one really knew who the people there were,” said Angel Briceño, one of the presumed partners. “None of us asked, ‘How much money did you put in? How many shares do you own?”
The investors who claim they were defrauded generally fit the same profile — Venezuelan businessmen looking to invest in the United States so they could eventually emigrate.
None of us asked, ‘How much money did you put in? How many shares do you own?’
Angel Briceño, investor
Briceño said he learned two months after the restaurant opening that he had been cut out of the business, even though he had invested about $400,000.
Briceño is one of about a dozen investors, most of them Venezuelans, alleging that they were deceived by Venezuelan businessman Carlos Urbaneja through a restaurant project based on the image of Paul Teutul Sr. of Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper” reality show.
The investors alleged that they lost nearly $15 million, and four of them sued Urbaneja, Teutul and their companies in Broward County Courts.
Urbaneja declined el Nuevo Herald requests for an interview but wrote in a brief email that the allegations against him “have no merit and we have filed motions with the court seeking to dismiss their case.” He added that his lawyers “will be asserting significant counterclaims for the damages caused to us by the Plaintiffs.”
Later, after el Nuevo Herald published the first part of this series, his lawyer, Mark Goldstein, challenged some of the figures in the report and said the $400,000 Briceño claimed to have invested in fact had come from another investor, Humberto Del Grosso.
Urbaneja also alleged that Briceño was paid commissions totaling $300,000 to $400,000 as a member of the Orange County Chopper (OCC) board of directors. Briceño said his payments did not total more than $90,000.
Urbaneja’s attorney also argued that not all of the investors allegedly defrauded filed lawsuits in the case. El Nuevo Herald spoke to some of the people identified by the lawyer. They complained that they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the OCC project and made available documents showing the amounts they invested.
The investors said Urbaneja received the multimillion dollar investments for a chain of restaurants that would rival the Hard Rock Cafes and be based on Teutul and his OCC custom motorcycle shop. But the project never got off the ground.
Whenever the demands of investors and other problems became intolerable, the project was relaunched under a new name and share structure, according to the investors. The chain of restaurants started out as OCC RoadHouse, turned into OCC Cafe and later OCC Fast Food.
OCC representatives declined to comment for this story.
The investors who claim they were defrauded alleged that Urbaneja sold the same project three or four times to different groups of investors, and at times distributed shares in paper companies that had no value.
For Venezuelan businesswoman Paola Arciniegas, the problems with her investments started in her country.
Arciniegas said Urbaneja was introduced to her as a businessman who owned the Venezuelan franchise for the Benihana and Miga’s restaurants and was looking for a partner to develop new locales for the TGI Friday chain.
Arciniegas said she paid just over $900,000 for a 35 percent ownership of two restaurants separate from the TGI Friday chain. One was to be built in the city of Barquisimeto and the other in the Caracas neighborhood of El Paraiso.
But the restaurants took a long time to open, Arciniegas said in an interview, and the one in El Paraiso closed because of a lack of revenue.
To keep me quiet, they started paying me some presumed profits in the early months, but the money was coming from the same funds that I had invested.
Paola Arciniegas, Venezuelan businesswoman
“To keep me quiet, they started paying me some presumed profits in the early months, but the money was coming from the same funds that I had invested,” she said. She learned about the scheme only much later, and in the meantime accepted Urbaneja’s invitation to go to Miami to look over a new project that would make both of them millionaires — OCC RoadHouse.
“I was very interested, I started to think about it. They asked me to buy 10 percent of the holding (company),” she said. “They asked me for $2.2 million — $1.1 million for the 10 percent of the holding and $1.1 million for 30 percent of the first restaurant.”
Arciniegas put up half the money, but after four months started to have doubts.
“It had already been six to seven months after we started” with the TGI Friday deal, she added. “And that’s when my worries start, because I don’t see anything happening in Venezuela and I don’t see anything in the United States.”
The restaurant never opened its doors. Urbaneja later claimed that a partner named Mark Advent had stolen the money, the businesswoman added.
Urbaneja’s lawyer said Arciniegas had no reason to claim that she was defrauded because her money went to Advent, who was one of the main players in the OCC project and is featured in the restaurant chain’s promotional materials.
Advent could not be contacted for comment on this story.
By the time the New York restaurant opened in October 2012 , the project had already gathered $7 million, investors said.
But the investors started to suspect that the project had been oversold. Briceño said he confirmed it two months after the restaurant’s inauguration, when he met with another partner in the company, Boris Duran.
“Boris Duran and I met, and that’s when we started to see that I did not appear anywhere,” he said. “I told him, ‘How can that be, because I have all this’,” Briceño said, referring to the shares he held.
Briceño said they called the OCC lawyer, who confirmed his worst fears. “This lawyer … tells me, ‘brother, for me, you are an employee’” of Urbaneja.
His own lawyer then advised Briceño that the company was worth $500, not the $5 million he had been led to believe, and that he had no control at all over the recently opened restaurant or the franchise.
Briceño was not the only one of Urbaneja’s partners who alleged fraud.
Gerson Leal was happy when he saw the restaurant, across the street from the Dadeland Mall, where he thought he had invested a big part of his savings. It was to serve as the legal platform for his son Yovanny's new life in the United States.
A U.S. visa for Yovanny and a lawyer to help get him through the legal process was supposed to be part of the deal.
But when he went inside the Burger Q and identified himself as one of the owners, the staff seemed puzzled even after he showed them a business card identifying him as “Partner-Director” of the restaurant.
Burger Q had a different owner, they told him. That's when Leal said he realized he had been the victim of a fraud.
Gabriel Argüello heard about the OCC restaurant investment project from Urbaneja and Teutul in the offices of Orange County Choppers north of New York City.
But by the time Argüello put his money into the project, Urbaneja had distanced himself from Teutul and the project had changed yet again.
Argüello said he paid $400,000 for 10 percent ownership of the holding company for OCC Fast Food and claimed Urbaneja had told him the 10 percent in fact was worth $1 million.
The problems started just a few months later.
“My wife stays in the United States, I return to Venezuela. And she … starts to find out over five or six months that Carlos Urbaneja was taking the money that I invested and making payments for things that had nothing to do with the brand,” Argüello told el Nuevo Herald.
His wife, María Teresa Ortiz, noticed the irregular payments after asking Urbaneja several times for copies of the project's books, Argüello added.
After looking over the books, he said, “she gets scared and she calls me in Venezuela and tells me, look, I need you to come because this man is using our money to pay office employees … I need you to come to see how we can recover our money.”
Argüello said he asked Urbaneja to return the money but he refused even though he knew that Argüello is a senior official of Venezuela's federal investigative police. The investor then turned up the pressure.
“When I started to push him, he started to get nervous and I simply told him, you will pay me my money, by means fair or foul. He knew who I was, because he had looked into my background,” Argüello said.
Argüello eventually got Urbaneja to sign documents admitting he owed money to him and Paola Arciniega, another Venezuelan who invested in OCC RoadHouse, and later to hand over some luxury vehicles and three motorcycles as partial payment.
Urbaneja said he was the victim of an extortion by Argüello.
“He actually is not a victim, but instead is the perpetrator of extortion against my client,” Mark Goldstein, Urbaneja’s attorney, wrote in a letter to el Nuevo Herald.
He actually is not a victim, but instead is the perpetrator of extortion against my client.
Mark Goldstein, attorney
“Mr. Argüello is a law enforcement officer for the corrupt government of Venezuela and he used his position and influences to threaten bodily harm to Mr. Urbaneja’s family members and partners, in order to extort from Mr. Urbaneja a Lamborghini, two houses in Venezuela and two expensive custom made motorcycles,” Goldstein added. “Thus, any money that Mr. Argüello lost, assuming for the sake of argument that it was his money, has been more than repaid.”
Argüello denies that he extorted Urbaneja, but he did file a fraud complaint in Venezuela that remains active. He added that the properties Urbaneja turned over to him covered only part of a total debt of $525,000.
Burger Q was independently developed by Argüello who used the leftovers from the failed business.
Most of the investors who are complaining said they had less luck than Argüello when they tried to recover their money.
Eloy Jiménez, a retired lieutenant in the Venezuelan armed forces, said he asked Urbaneja several times to return his $70,000 investment, but was told the money had been spent already.
“They told me that the only way to get out of the business was to look for an investor who would buy my shares,” Jiménez said in an interview. He added that the proposal seemed immoral because he would have to put another person into the same situation.
Jiménez said he eventually recovered $25,000, although Urbaneja's lawyer claimed he was repaid $35,000.
Leal said he had a similar experience over his alleged $400,000 investment in the Dadeland restaurant. When he asked for his money back, Urbaneja told him to find other investors to pump new money into the project.
In their last conversation, Leal added, Urbaneja actually demanded that he pay the $100,000 still promised on his investment.
The two have not spoken again. And Leal’s son’s immigration status remains in limbo.