Toronto billionaire Alex Shnaider was so enthusiastic about an oil and gas venture proposed by former oil executive Michael Shtaif in 2005 that he wanted to invest $200-million, Mr. Shtaif told a courtroom on Tuesday.
Mr. Shtaif, a Canadian citizen of Russian origin who once worked as a senior official with Russian oil firms Yukos and TNK-BP, was in the witness box on Tuesday testifying in a tangled civil trial over his falling out with Mr. Shnaider.
In court documents, Mr. Shnaider has alleged that Mr. Shtaif was part of a scheme to defraud him, inducing him to invest $50-million with a promise of $70-million from other investors that never materialized. Mr. Shtaif denies the allegations. He alleges that Mr. Shnaider tried to push him out of the joint venture and bribed Russian police to investigate him for fraud, allegations Mr. Shnaider denies. The allegations have not been proven.
In a Toronto courtroom, Mr. Shtaif recounted the first meeting between the two men in November, 2005. They met at the Toronto offices of Mr. Shnaider's company, Midland Resources Holding Ltd., with which the Russian-born Toronto-based billionaire made his fortune in the Eastern European steel business.
Mr. Shtaif told court that the pair hit it off, with "similar personalities" and "similar interests," over a two-hour meeting. And he testified that Mr. Shndaider was very interested in Mr. Shtaif's plan to use his expertise to ferret out undervalued oil fields in Russia.
"As they say in baseball, I pitched him a fastball and he reacted," Mr. Shtaif told court, saying he declined Mr. Shnaider's initial offer of a $200-million investment for a 80-per-cent stake in Mr. Shtaif's venture, as he did not want one dominating shareholder.
They later agreed on a $50-million investment, for a 32-per-cent share, Mr. Shtaif said, although Mr. Shnaider would later try to "squeeze" a larger share, he said.
Mr. Shtaif said he was unaware at that time that a purported Toronto investor in his venture, who used the named John Howard, was allegedly a man named Irwin Boock, who according to court documents, has faced Ontario Securities Commission proceedings and criminal charges related to fraud. It was Mr. Boock who had provided the shell company, called Magellan Energy Ltd., to become the corporate vehicle for the joint venture.
But the company, it is alleged, turned out to be a fraudulently created "sham," Mr. Shtaif said. Another associate of Mr. Boock, Magellan board member Stanton DeFreitas, was also allegedly secretly selling "illegal" shares in the company and failing to pass the proceeds onto Magellan, Mr. Shtaif testified. (Both Mr. Boock and Mr. DeFreitas were also named as defendants in Mr. Shnaider's lawsuit.)
Mr. Shtaif told court that Mr. Shnaider ended up with 1.4 million "illegal shares" from Mr. DeFreitas, although the billionaire said the purchase was "inadvertent." Mr. Shtaif denied that he received any of these shares.
Mr. Shtaif, after learning of the problems, initially sued Mr. Howard and others over the issue in the United States but then dropped the lawsuit "reluctantly," he testified, in order to protect Mr. Shnaider from being accused publicly of being involved in the "illegal distribution" of shares.
"I think that there was a lot of backdoor dealings going on between Mr. Shnaider, Mr. DeFreitas, and whoever, that we as the board of Magellan knew nothing about," Mr. Shtaif told court.
Mr. Shnaider "should not have received those shares and he knew and should have known better than that," Mr. Shtaif said.
Mr. Shtaif denied that he intentionally misled Mr. Shnaider about the $70-million investment pledged by a company allegedly controlled by the man calling himself Mr. Howard, which never materialized.
He told the court that he relied on word from Mr. DeFreitas when he told Mr. Shnaider in an e-mail that the first $10-million instalment of the $70-million had been paid: "I never intentionally or meant to mislead anybody at any time."