Two weeks ago, when federal agents raided the North Oakland home of Ralbert Brooks-Hamilton, their prey was nowhere to be found. Agents from the US Department of State headed back to San Francisco empty-handed, hopeful they'd get another chance to arrest the man they say has posed as a Nicaraguan diplomat for the past four months.
Brooks-Hamilton's alleged deception may have caught the eye of federal law enforcement, but he's no stranger to Oakland city officials. The businessman still owes nearly $500,000 in loans he secured through the city's One Stop Capital Shop, a program designed to pump business cash into Oakland's most downtrodden neighborhoods ("One Stop Capital Flop," feature, 8/21/2002). Brooks-Hamilton's invention, a tote bag on wheels called the U-Wheel-It, never sold as hoped, and thus never brought the promised manufacturing jobs to West Oakland. Since then, Brooks-Hamilton has tangled with city attorneys in court in an effort to avoid repayment.
But in June he lost two court battles and filed for bankruptcy. Around the same time, federal investigators say, the Oakland resident attended the UN World Environment Day conference in San Francisco, where Al Gore presented the keynote speech. According to investigators, Brooks-Hamilton passed himself off as an investment-seeking diplomat from Nicaragua and told potential marks he'd use the cash to revitalize that country's economy in its Región Autónoma Atlántico Sur.
After the State Department agents left Brooks-Hamilton's home two weeks ago and headed back onto Interstate 80, they caught a lucky break. They noticed the self-styled diplomat speeding along in his red Ford Escort. Instead of the typical black sedan with diplomatic plates, Brooks-Hamilton drove a beater with a San Francisco Giants sticker on the back window. "You would think," one agent later remarked, "if he really was a diplomat, he would drive a car that doesn't need silver duct tape to hold the bumper on."
Piecing together the truth of Ralbert Brooks-Hamilton is a careful exercise in attribution. According to his public attorney, he holds dual US and Nicaraguan citizenship and has lived in the States since 1973. According to the résumé he passed on to Oakland city officials, he also holds a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Cal State Hayward. In interviews with this newspaper in 2002, Brooks-Hamilton also said he taught mathematics at the college level. Despite his academic pedigree, he claimed at the time, his larger goal was to get rich from his inventions and one day buy a house in the Oakland hills. He never mentioned his Nicaraguan background. In fact, he said he came from the western Caribbean; he often spoke with an affected accent of the region.
In the past, Brooks-Hamilton also has traded on his African descent. In 1998, backed by the Black Chamber of Commerce, he won the city council's approval for his first loan of $150,000 -- an amount an Alameda County grand jury later found Brooks-Hamilton had deposited into his personal checking account. After his city-backed business venture went belly-up, Brooks-Hamilton joined a class-action lawsuit that claimed Oakland's African-American business owners had been discriminated against by city hall. The suit is still pending.
Yet Brooks-Hamilton's U-Wheel-It enterprise was just the first of many to default under the city's much-maligned One Stop Capital Shop, which has since undergone a structural overhaul. At the time, city auditor Roland Smith chastised the high-risk loans as "giveaways" and argued against lending to Brooks-Hamilton in particular. "They've become advocates for the borrowers, not the lender," he cautioned of the program.
In the last two years the city attorney's office -- which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside bankruptcy lawyers during that time -- has recouped about $4.3 million, according to Erica Harrold, the office's communications director. But the city auditor's office reports that Oakland still could be owed as much as $10 million, including interest, from defaults on city business loans since 1998.
In Brooks-Hamilton's case, which auditor Smith called a "flim-flam deal" from the get-go, his recent bankruptcy filing bore some fruit. The debtor, Harrold said, has sold off a "small amount" of assets to chip away at his massive balance due. According to court documents, after seven years of wrangling, the city and the defendant agreed to a repayment plan that would carry through next year.
But unlike city officials, who were wooed by Brooks-Hamilton's charm, attendees at the UN World Environment Day conference earlier this summer weren't easily persuaded. After hearing the putative diplomat's pitch, a few called the Nicaraguan General Consulate to confirm his standing. The consulate, according to federal agents, contacted the US State Department to declare the fraud. Since his arrest off Interstate 80, neither Nicaraguan nor US government officials have come forward to certify Brooks-Hamilton's diplomatic papers. The Nicaraguan Consulate did not return phone calls for this story.
As far as State Department special agent Jonathan Poole knows, no one from the UN conference gave Brooks-Hamilton money. "Most people were able to discover he was a fraud before he was able to obtain funds," Poole said. "But that's not to say there aren't some victims out there."
The Friday morning after his arrest Brooks-Hamilton appeared in Judge James Larson's courtroom dressed in a double-breasted suit jacket and slacks. He was accompanied by his brother and a woman he described to a court employee as his "personal assistant." In a case of fashion overkill, the woman carried two Louis Vuitton handbags and wore a Louis Vuitton neck scarf. Even though Brooks-Hamilton was officially in the custody of the State Department, he was free to mill about the courtroom uncuffed.
When his case was called, Judge Larson seemed impressed with the accusation. "It's the first one of these I've seen in twenty years," Larson said.
Larson said posing as a diplomat could bring a maximum sentence of ten years and a $250,000 fine. He asked Brooks-Hamilton if he wanted to enter a plea. The defendant declined. Before the hearing, a federal agent said, Brooks-Hamilton had told him that "the misunderstanding" would get cleared up with a few phone calls.
Since the defendant had dual citizenship, Larson wondered if he would take advantage of his release and flee to Nicaragua. He ordered Brooks-Hamilton to post bail and gave him a deadline to forfeit both his passports. Arguing to keep Brooks-Hamilton in custody, US Assistant Attorney Michelle Morgan-Kelly noted the defendant was "in dire financial straits" and couldn't afford bail. Just then, the defendant's brother and personal assistant stepped forward to sign an unsecured bond for $100,000. If Brooks-Hamilton left the country before the issue was resolved, the judge warned, the two would be in the lurch. "What you're telling me," Larson said to the brother, "is that you trust him that much. That he won't leave."
His brother nodded.
"I promise," Brooks-Hamilton interjected. "I won't, Your Honor."
If he does break his promise, at least Oakland's attorneys will know which country to search.
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