Here’s Something: Saddleback suitor should crawl back down under

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Good riddance to the prospective buyer of Saddleback ski area in Rangeley, Sebastian Monsour, who once had the whole state excited about the resort’s reopening, but has instead left us feeling like dupes and dopes.

An excellent piece of reporting by WCSH Channel 6 last week revealed that Monsour, who hails from Australia, was merely trying to buy the resort to take advantage of America’s EB-5 visa program, which allows foreign investors (and their spouses and children) to receive green cards if they invest $500,000 in a project that creates or preserves 10 jobs.

Monsour, who is CEO of the Queensland-based Majella Group, was recorded during a Majella staff meeting last October explaining that he wasn’t pursuing the purchase of Saddleback for the betterment of the ski area or community – or even to get it back up and running – but to lure investors.

“The EB-5 program is the reason we are actually buying Saddleback,” he said. “The mountain and opening the mountain is something we would like to achieve, but if we don’t, we are not going to lose any sleep with regards to it.”

It doesn’t get more honest than that.

Of course, Monsour was speaking to his staff and probably never imagined his words would be released to the public. But as he seemingly duped us, Monsour was duped by one of his employees who did Rangeley, and all of Maine, a favor by releasing the damaging recording.

Alas, it would have been nice if Monsour had told everybody all this last summer, when he hammed it up in front of reporters, officials and locals who gathered at Saddleback to hear the good news of the resort’s promised rebirth. Monsour sure had us going.

I’m not from Rangeley and I’ve only visited a few times, but Rangeley is an iconic part of Maine’s recreational heritage, and all Mainers care what happens there. So it’s shocking to hear that someone could be so brazen as to use one of Maine’s treasured communities to get rich by conning not only the public, but potential investors.

This is sounding awfully similar to the famous EB-5 fraud case in Vermont, which just last month saw the imposition of an $80 million-plus fine against a Miami-based businessman who convinced residents from 74 different countries to invest in revitalizing the Jay Peak ski area in return for U.S. citizenship. That businessman, Ariel Quiros, is said to have swindled about 800 investors out of at least $500,000 each, the price required by the federal government’s EB-5 program to earn a green card.

First off, what’s up with ski resorts attracting EB-5 abuse? And secondly, did Monsour think he’d actually get away with a Quiros-type scheme in the far-off hamlet of Rangeley, Maine? Do fraudsters think quiet, mountain areas are somehow a safe target?

At least the Maine case seems to have been stopped before more people could lose their shirts, since Monsour has said he is “very, very, very low” on cash and unable to complete the purchase. And it sounds as if, even if he could raise the cash, this deal will never fly since we have an EB-5 program overseer, George Gervais at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, who wants nothing to do with Monsour’s bid now that the audio recording has been released.

Gervais sees the case for what it is, telling the Portland Press Herald, “There’s fraudulent activity that we want nothing to do with.”

While I feel sorry for the Rangeley region, which continues to go without its beloved ski area, at least the ruse was caught quickly so the Berry family, which has owned Saddleback since 2003 and pumped $40 million into the resort until its closing in 2015, can move on to more realistic deals. The Berrys, and all of us, probably should have been a little more skeptical when Monsour promised Saddleback would become the “premier ski resort in North America.” But they, and we, wanted it to be true.

Now that the truth is out there (and any reconciliation seems unlikely since Monsour isn’t speaking with the media and, at last check, has disabled the Majella website and hasn’t paid his employees), it’s time for the Berry family to drop ties and seek other buyers.

And, with so much fraud and abuse, the federal government needs to reconsider its EB-5 program, which allows anyone with big bucks to become a citizen. Just as Saddleback shouldn’t be for sale to someone who has dubious intentions, citizenship shouldn’t be for sale, either.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.