APF frontman loses credibility in Hardin

From The Billings Gazette:

ED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Tuesday, October 6, 2009

HARDIN – Michael Hilton, seen as the potential savior of Hardin just two weeks ago, is quickly running out of supporters in the struggling town of 3,500.

Hilton is the Serbian-born Californian who has been representing American Police Force as a company interested in leasing Hardin’s empty jail and investing millions in a prison and military training operation.

On Monday, when Two Rivers Authority, the city’s economic development arm that built the jail, met to discuss possible changes in its proposed contract with APF, board president Gary Arneson said APF needs to replace Hilton as a representative to Hardin.

“I agree,” said Mayor Ron Adams, standing in the audience. “He has no credibility in this community at all.”

For a while Monday, it looked as though there would be no mention of the controversy churning around Hilton, who was identified last week as an ex-convict with multiple aliases and a long criminal history. He returned to California last week.

After a short discussion of the contract, the board was about to move on to another subject when board member Robert Crane asked to speak.

He said there were so many unanswered questions about Hilton and APF that he didn’t see how the board could consider a contract with the company.

“It just seems like it’s one thing after another, and there’s too many red flags coming up,” Crane said.

Crane said Hilton has been lying to him and other board members, most notably about the identity of the man Hilton said he had hired to be director of operations at the Hardin jail and training center.

The board had not previously released the man’s name, and TRA Vice President Al Peterson said last week that “people will be shocked” when they learn what a high-caliber person Hilton was bringing to town.

Crane identified the so-called director on Monday as Mike Cohen, vice president of International Security Associates in Dublin, Ohio. Crane said he spoke with Cohen last week and was told he had no association with Hilton or APF.

Reached by phone later Monday, Cohen said he does have extensive experience in overseas security training and had recently returned from Iraq when he came across the APF Web site early in September. Interested in various opportunities listed there, he sent in his resume and an application.

He said Hilton called him soon after that and talked about various jobs, but refused to divulge any details unless they met in person in California or Montana.

“I just didn’t feel right about the conversation,” Cohen said, so he e-mailed Hilton the next day and said he needed answers to specific questions before pursuing the job any further.

Hilton didn’t write or call back until about two weeks later, when he told Cohen that he still was interested in hiring him. Cohen said Hilton still refused to answer any questions, however, so Cohen stopped talking to him.

That was the last Cohen heard of APF until last Friday, when Crane called Cohen and told him that Hilton had identified him as his new director of operations in Hardin. Crane also told him that Hilton presented the TRA board with Cohen’s resume, touting his new director.

“Friday afternoon was the first I heard about it,” Cohen said. “I told him (Crane) flat out, I have no idea who this joker is.”

TRA board members faced other tough questions at their meeting on Monday.

Rich Solberg, host of a show on KHDN radio in Hardin, asked board members if they had drawn up a contract with APF based solely on the representations of Hilton. Arneson responded that he didn’t personally know the names of anyone else connected with APF, but would try to make those names available at some future date.

Solberg also asked the board about the parent company that supposedly was working with APF behind the scenes to lease the Hardin jail. At an earlier TRA meeting, Solberg said, Peterson “was speaking in praise and glory of that unnamed company.”

Asked by Solberg on Monday if he knew the identity of the parent company, Peterson referred him to Becky Shay, the APF spokeswoman. Pressed again by Solberg to say whether he knew the name of the company, Peterson turned away and said, “I’m not going to answer that question at this point.”

Arneson said after the meeting that he will have to speak with the Hardin people who met with Hilton in California last month to find out who else they spoke with there. The four people who flew to California were Peterson; TRA attorney Becky Convery; Greg Smith, the former director of the TRA; and Smith’s wife, Hardin mayoral candidate Kerri Smith.

Peterson said after the meeting Monday that one gathering in California involved at least 15 people, several of whom worked for APF, “as far as I know.”

Convery, who wasn’t at the meeting Monday, said afterward that she remembers meeting Hilton, one other person who may have been associated with APF but seems to have specialized in wind power, and a man named David Gilberts, whose business card identified him as APF’s communications director.

A call to the California number on Gilberts’ business card was answered by a man who identified himself only as Sgt. Martin, who said he was with APF. At first he said no one named David Gilberts worked there, but, when told about Gilberts’ purported position with the company, Sgt. Martin said, “He’s not here,” and then referred all further questions to Shay.

Convery, who used to be the Hardin city attorney, had been working for the TRA before resigning last week over a conflict of interest. She has also been working under contract with the city on deconsolidating law enforcement in Big Horn County, which is now provided solely by the sheriff’s department.

APF had talked briefly of helping establish a police department in Hardin, and Hilton and several associates showed up 10 days ago in three Mercedes SUVs bearing decals that read “City of Hardin Police Department.” Convery said the commotion caused by APF’s involvement in law enforcement issues forced her to resign as the TRA’s attorney.

Board members said Monday they would have to find a new attorney before considering changes to the contract with APF. They had said before that the contract was approved by the APF and Two Rivers but still needed the signatures of people with U.S. Bank, representing bondholders.

The city of Hardin backed the sale of $27 million in bonds to finance construction of the jail, known as Two Rivers Detention Facility.

Cohen, the man wrongly identified as the director of operations for APF’s planned enterprise in Hardin, said he was still shaking his head Monday.

“I feel sorry for everyone up there in Montana,” he said. “He’s (Hilton) scamming everyone up there.”

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