THE PRINCETON SHELL GAME
Why is Peter Tien doing all this?
"I'm an environmentalist, he says. "My job is to reduce emissions." And of the owner of Kinsei who developed the system, he notes, "his technology should be able to do something good for all of society. Money to him is no longer the issue; it's more humanitarian."
Unbidden, Tien interjects this: "Before I came to Cleveland, I didn't know anyone in Cleveland. I never attended any political function, never paid a dollar to any political campaign. I don't do business by buying somebody dinner."
Maybe not. But there is no shortage of holes in his grandiose claims.
"There are no plans to move Honeywell's headquarters to Cleveland," says Marie Yarroll, a spokeswoman for the Fortune 100 company. "Any claim that we are moving there is 100 percent false." After several weeks of investigating, a small cadre of Honeywell management types were unable to confirm that the New Jersey conglomerate has any connection with Tien at all.
As for Tien's exuberant claim that the EPA permit has been approved? Not quite. The EPA issued a preliminary permit just last week, but an approval or rejection hinges on a public hearing set for early January, followed by another EPA review.
"I would expect a final decision in late winter/early spring," says EPA spokesman Mike Settles.
Given his penchant for international commerce, one might expect Tien to do business from a sleek East Coast complex. But the address he listed for Princeton Environmental Group on the city contract in March 2010 is actually in an industrial park adjacent to Newark Airport. There is currently no Princeton listed among its tenants.
The Princeton website, however, lists an address and phone number belonging to a ramshackle strip building in Queens, New York, with three tenants — none of them named Princeton. But there is a firm by the name of National Logistics & Equipment, which sells alarms and surveillance gear. According to New Jersey state records, it was incorporated by Peter Tien in 2002. It's in the back. And when you call its number, Tien answers the phone.
If the number at National Logistics appears to be a reliable place to find Tien, it happens not to be the contact info he shared on his EPA permit application in March.
That number rings through to a fax machine at Dobco Inc., a New Jersey firm with a long résumé of green construction projects for governments and private businesses. Tien's original proposal to Cleveland includes Dobco as a partner in the deal — but that now seems to be off the table.
"Peter Tien left here in early September," Dobco President Michael Dobric tells Scene. "He's on his own."
Back here in the future headquarters of all things environmental and lucrative, Princeton Environmental was slated to operate a downtown office staffed with local workers by March 2010, according to contract stipulations.
On the one invoice submitted to the city so far — for a tidy $300,000, just for signing the contract — Princeton lists a Chester Avenue address. That office turns out to be a locked room in the back of an office occupied by Ralph Tyler Companies, an engineering firm.
"That's my engineering firm," Tien says, implying he hired Ralph Tyler to work on the plant designs. A sign taped to the wall shows visitors to Princeton's door. But people working on the same floor tell Scene that Princeton has no staff, no assistant, and that Tien himself is rarely seen.
Messages left for Ralph Tyler's CEO inquiring whether Tien has enlisted the company's engineering services were not returned.
On that $300,000 invoice, Tien lists National Logistics' New Jersey phone number along with the Cleveland address.
"They couldn't even bother to get a fake Cleveland phone number," says Ohio Citizen Action's Buchanan.
A PILE OF DISCREPANCIES
If it seems Peter Tien can't get his house in order, the same might be said of his assurances to Cleveland.
Told of Tien's grand $300 million financing plan and his long-term aspirations for the city, Cleveland Public Power's Henderson says, "He was never directly involved with any of those things."
The websites for Kinsei and Princeton Environmental list no U.S. cities other than Cleveland with which the company is working to build gasification plants — the plants that Cleveland manufacturers will make parts for, according to Tien's plan.
But there is one U.S. city that does document a Tien production — more of a misadventure, actually. And it isn't Houston or Chicago or L.A.
In 2007, the eastern Ohio metropolis known as Clyde (population: 6,080) struck a deal for a smaller Kinsei gasification plant that would be run by Princeton, which would in turn sell the power to the city. By the end of the year, however, Clyde City Council reversed a purchase agreement made with Tien. The city continued to entertain Tien's proposals until late 2008, when it turned instead to versions of similar waste technology made by U.S. companies.
"I understand the financials weren't there [from Princeton] as promised," says Clyde economic development manager Adam Greenslade, who was not yet working for the city at the time of the failed dealings.
Not only will Clyde not be buying gasifier parts from future Cleveland-based manufacturers, but another huge potential parts client has also fallen by the wayside.
According to Cleveland City Councilman Brian Cummins, who has been dubious of the deal all along, Tien also told city officials that the U.S. military was in line to buy gasification units that could ultimately be serviced by the manufacturers who set up shop here.
But the military's not marching to Tien's tune.
"What we were looking at was not the same situation you have in Cleveland," says a source who investigated gasification technology for the U.S. Department of Defense and who spoke to Scene on the condition of anonymity. "Ours was focused on a mobile unit for 'contingency purposes' — which basically means war. So it was a much, much smaller unit." The military ultimately chose a different provider.
"I spoke to Peter Tien," the source says. "If you end up working directly with Kinsei ... it certainly didn't feel like a fly-by-night company."
There's more evidence that Tien's notion of Cleveland as the gasifier capital of America is a somewhat distant vision. He has partnered with companies interested in building the plants stateside, but most, like Spectrum Energy of New Hampshire, are waiting to see how it works in Cleveland first — and how much it will cost us.
"We are looking to Cleveland as the model," says Spectrum President Mike Koutelis. "The question becomes 'Can you afford it?'" It will be a while, he adds, before his company embraces similar projects.
"We know what's happening in Japan. We'd like to see more in the ground in the United States first."