A dirty secret in the world of California governmental regulation is that the perfect scheme doesn’t have to be all that perfect to lure customers and fend off state officials. It just needs to be sufficiently complex and the people behind it sufficiently persistent.
Few individuals have taken more advantage of this fact than Paul Boaventura-Delanoe, as the man who for decades earned notoriety under the name Paul Noe II now calls himself. Over the past several decades, Boaventura-Delanoe has engaged in a series of elaborate business schemes, usually targeting vulnerable customers—retirees, veterans, distressed homeowners—and typically ending in a regulatory crackdown. And each time, Boaventura-Delanoe has simply picked himself up and moved on to the next venture, deploying an uncanny instinct for finding the weakest links in California’s system of business regulation.
Boaventura-Delanoe’s latest reinvention involves an invention: a device called the JouleBox that’s marketed through a Van Nuys–based company named Eco-Gen Energy. Eco-Gen has touted the JouleBox as a miracle product, so energy efficient that it can amplify solar power, letting its users earn tax credits as “green energy producers” and income from surplus electricity fed into the energy grid. Experts who’ve reviewed the amplification claims say they defy basic laws of physics. But California’s processes for vetting eco-friendly technologies might be no match for Boaventura-Delanoe’s knack for finding new business opportunities.
THE VILLAGE AND THE MIRACLE MACHINE
On July 11, 2016, the village trustees of Johnson, Vermont, population 1,495, spoke with Boaventura-Delanoe via conference call to learn about the inner workings of the JouleBox.
The device, named for an English physicist whose surname is now used for a unit of energy, supposedly could increase the amount of electricity coming out of solar energy cells. In a video posted to YouTube in 2018, Boaventura-Delanoe demonstrated a process in which solar energy ran a special fan that turned a motor-like device that produced electromagnetic energy, which was stored in large battery packs that ultimately fed electricity into the power grid. It was bewildering enough, yet high-tech-sounding enough, to convince the Johnson trustees that they needed an expert opinion.
So Stephen Fitzhugh, a local electrical engineering professor, was brought in to listen on another line and advise the trustees on whether they should bolster their public utility’s power supply with one of the devices, which sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fitzhugh swiftly concluded that Boaventura-Delanoe’s explanations made no sense, that his claims violated principles of science, and that he was misusing even basic electrical terms.
“It felt like a little municipal utility was being taken advantage of,” Fitzhugh recalls. He wasn’t the first person to be irked by Boaventura-Delanoe’s assertions.
Boaventura-Delanoe—a.k.a. Paul Noe II, a.k.a. Paul Delanoe—is a scion of one of America’s greatest con artist families. A half century ago, his uncle and his father pulled off global confidence games so audacious that they were the subjects of the 1970s book The Fountain Pen Conspiracy, later reissued as The Super Swindlers. In the 1980s, Fortune magazine quoted an FBI source who ranked the uncle, Clifford Noe, as “among the most notorious white-collar criminals ever.”
The man who now calls himself Paul Boaventura–Delanoe was a loyal protégé of both men. And in 1989 he was convicted of five counts of aiding and abetting wire fraud for his involvement in one of his uncle’s insurance frauds. But Boaventura-Delanoe soon bounced back and established a succession of labyrinthine intrigues seemingly focused on perpetrating alleged consumer fraud.
I have covered Boaventura-Delanoe for 16 of his 66 years, largely during the period when he went by Paul Noe II. Again and again, he’d construct a convoluted plan targeting some hapless group, I’d report on it, and regulators would crack down. But somehow, despite government investigations, civil lawsuits, enforcement actions, and private litigation, Boaventura-Delanoe would continue his antihero’s journey.
In person, Boaventura-Delanoe has described himself to me as a misunderstood altruist, unfairly paying penance for the deeds of his father and his uncle. “All I really want to do is help people,” he once told me. On paper, he has often depicted himself as legally unaffiliated with companies that he in fact controlled, companies that, by his own logic, have been vehicles for his plans to do good.
When he was targeting seniors in the early 2000s, it was his ex-wife’s name on official paperwork. Later, when he set up an operation that the California Department of Justice said was aimed at bilking homeowners, his personal attorney ended up holding the bag. The official contact for a subsequent effort focusing on a Department of Veterans Affairs anti-poverty program was Boaventura-Delanoe associate Julia Otey.
Otey, it turns out, is also listed as the official point of contact for Eco-Gen, the company set up to market the JouleBox. She hadn’t returned my phone messages by press time.
After at least the third time Boaventura-Delanoe was swatted by the government for an alleged fraud, he legally changed his name from Paul Noe II to Paul Boaventura-Delanoe. In 2013, the year he made the name change, he distributed a business plan that involved raising $25 million from individual Eco-Gen investors $25,000 at a time.
DR. NOE’S NEPHEW
I’ve met Paul Boaventura-Delanoe in person only once, during an hours-long meeting a decade and a half ago at a Burbank steakhouse. At the time, he charmingly, earnestly explained to me that he was nothing like his uncle Clifford Dixon Noe or his father, Paul Howe.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Boaventura-Delanoe’s father and uncle had undertaken titanic, multilayered schemes revolving around phony companies, forged investment papers, and imaginary bank accounts. Their tradecraft involved exchanging fake assets for real assets such as financial institutions, which could be used to print more fake assets, such as financial papers.
In one such case, they took out loans secured by companies that turned out to be worthless. With the borrowed money, they bought a Texas bank. Once they were the official owners of the bank, they looted it from the inside, according to reports. Another time, they bought a British bank using forged financial certificates.
The FBI reportedly referred to Noe as “Dr. Noe,” suggesting James Bond’s first cinematic foil. The seeming supervillains became something of a project within the bureau. Its 1980s dragnet, however, scooped up Boaventura-Delanoe, then a 34-year-old just learning the ropes. Noe and his nephew had amassed phony financial instruments with a face value of more than $100 million—nearly enough to buy an insurance company they had their eyes on. To put themselves over the top, they met with a seemingly corrupt banker who turned out to be an FBI agent. Noe fled to Costa Rica. The FBI caught up with him during a visit to New Orleans, where he was arrested, and in 1989, he was convicted alongside his nephew, Boaventura-Delanoe—at that time going by his given name, Paul Noe II—on fraud charges.
SCHEMES OF THE SON
Despite that conviction, Boaventura-Delanoe and other family members went on to assemble the Mount Whitney of California’s so-called trust mills.
In the early 2000s, a company controlled by Boaventura-Delanoe put full-page advertisements in newspapers around California inviting seniors to attend “living trust seminars.” A hired pitchman would explain how they could protect their children’s inheritance from medical bills, taxes, and other expenses by setting up a special trust account. Instead of having to pay $2,000 or more to a certified financial adviser and an attorney, seminar attendees could fill out a ready-made set of documents for less than $500. Once completed, these documents were hand-delivered to seniors’ front doors by a sweet-talking annuity investment salesperson.
Hidden in the annuity contracts were unusual fees and restrictions that could impoverish the seniors who signed them, says Prescott Cole, the senior staff attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.
Nick Champlin, an attorney for the California Department of Insurance, spent years seeking to curtail Boaventura-Delanoe’s activities. From time to time, Champlin would vent to me about how California’s weak consumer-protection laws largely tied his hands. Boaventura-Delanoe, having previously been convicted of a felony, wasn’t supposed to sell insurance annuities, so his associate Dina Dae Payne operated the company. When the Department of Insurance issued a cease-and-desist order, Boaventura-Delanoe appealed and lost. But the only result was that he was banned from selling insurance-based investments, something he had done without authorization previously.
Champlin died in June 2009. In what became a pattern, Boaventura-Delanoe pressed forth all but unscathed and moved on to other lines of business.
As the late-2000s mortgage crisis unfolded, Boaventura-Delanoe saw an opportunity in homeowners seeking to avoid having banks seize their houses. He assembled a boiler room of Spanish-speaking telemarketers, lawyers, and salespeople to pitch “mortgage relief” under the company name United First. Boaventura-Delanoe’s team told distressed homeowners that they could file a lawsuit claiming that the bank didn’t actually have legal title to their property, a situation that did sometimes happen prior to the 2008 mortgage crisis. But after Boaventura-Delanoe got homeowners to sign over their property to him and pay him unusual fees, his attorney Mitchell Roth would go through the motions of filing piles of these lawsuits, then seemingly abandon them, according to U.S. district judge Manuel Real.
Homeowners ended up not only losing their property but also paying thousands of dollars in fees.
In a 2009 civil lawsuit, then–California attorney general Jerry Brown alleged that Boaventura-Delanoe and Roth had “ripped off homeowners desperate for help by charging unconscionable fees for phony lawsuits.” He later announced a $1 million restitution payment from Roth. Boaventura-Delanoe was ordered to pay restitution, too.
In one of her first acts as attorney general in January 2011, Brown’s successor, Kamala Harris, entered a judgment against Roth, Boaventura-Delanoe, and the companies under which they operated that provided for restitution, prohibited them from future “misleading statements,” and banished them from the mortgage relief business. So Boaventura-Delanoe resurrected himself once again, this time as a businessman claiming to advance the cause of good in the world.
His new company was called NSA Educational Academy. The idea: teach ex–service members how to exaggerate their hardships and obtain government pensions meant for underprivileged veterans.
In one coaching session, Boaventura-Delanoe gently yet firmly advised a man to tell the government that he had to hire an attendant for bathing, grooming, and cleaning under his nails—despite the veteran’s protestations that he was perfectly able to take care of himself. In accordance with NSA’s business model, if the coaching resulted in a pension, Boaventura-Delanoe’s brother Sinclair could become involved and sell the grateful veteran on investment opportunities.
Soon the California legislature stepped in with a law directly addressing Boaventura-Delanoe’s pension-investment gambit.
So, in a by-now-time-honored tradition, Boaventura-Delanoe pivoted to a new type of business, this one seeking to exploit green-energy financial incentives and the accompanying eco-investing boom. It was run out of the same office, and even with some of the same staff, as the previous enterprise.
BIRTH OF AN ECOPRENEUR
In 2014, Kathryn Ross visited Boaventura-Delanoe’s Van Nuys office to evaluate his JouleBox units. Ross has a business installing energy-efficient devices, and Boaventura-Delanoe had promoted himself in Southern California green-energy circles as having invented a revolutionary one. Eco-Gen diagrams depict a gizmo that runs electricity through an apparatus containing a flywheel, a battery pack, and a vacuum-machine-like blower. Boaventura-Delanoe claimed that the device would allow owners to enhance the output of solar panels.
According to Boaventura-Delanoe’s pitch, his company would attach solar panels to the JouleBox so owners could obtain solar energy credits. On top of that, he told prospective investors, the blower would qualify for wind energy subsidies.
Ross was unimpressed. “What is interesting is that in the Eco-Gen office, they were running his Veterans Affairs investment business,” she recalls.
She sent me a series of photographs that she says show a JouleBox linked to an electrical cord, crudely hidden to disguise the fact that the device wasn’t producing any extra power at all. Ross believes that Boaventura-Delanoe was simply pumping electricity from the wall socket into the device, then claiming to have created energy.
“Where you can see the plug in the wall, he had these electricians wire it through the wall, and it’s hooked up to the grid in the neighboring building,” she says. “When he turns it on, he’s running it from electricity. He does these huge dog-and-pony shows trying to sell the unit.”
In documents filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Boaventura-Delanoe claims to have invented efficient motors and generators. But his promotional materials and his direct sales appeals suggest that solar panels can produce additional energy once they’re hooked up to a JouleBox. This idea infuriates experts who’ve reviewed Boaventura-Delanoe’s pitch to potential investors and buyers.
“Eco-Gen is a clear-cut violation of the laws of physics,” Craig Shields, an energy investment consultant who produces the blog 2GreenEnergy, wrote in an email. “It claims to put out more power than the user puts in.” Eco-Gen’s pitch, he added, seems to try to obscure this exaggeration with “technobabble in a lame attempt to confuse the viewer.”
But Boaventura-Delanoe’s pitch proved compelling to some investors. John Becker, a Maryland architect and sailboat captain with an interest in green design, was attracted to the idea of a generator that virtually runs on its own.
According to court filings, Becker was told that with solar panels attached to the JouleBox, purchasers would be eligible for solar and wind energy tax credits. He traveled to Van Nuys, where Boaventura-Delanoe gave him a demonstration, insisting that the machine was not connected to any external power source and “could run on its own continuously and perpetually,” as Becker later recalled in a court filing.
Becker went all in on Boaventura-Delanoe’s operation in March 2015, court filings show, buying $25,000 worth of shares in Eco-Gen, signing up as a JouleBox distributor, and persuading a friend to put down a $151,385 deposit on one.
In 2016, the year Boaventura-Delanoe made his ill-fated pitch to the village of Johnson in Vermont, he also filed multiple petitions for bankruptcy protection, which were rejected because he failed to produce information about his own finances.
Three years after Becker’s investment, in April 2018, an Eco-Gen representative wrote an email to Becker’s friend and client claiming that the company had made a $27 billion deal with India and a $900 million deal with Uganda, meaning Eco-Gen was going to be “the fast[est] growing company in history,” according to a printed exhibit in Becker’s lawsuit.
Yet court filings indicate Boaventura-Delanoe was unable to deliver the unit that Becker’s client had paid a deposit on. Eventually, case documents suggest, Becker decided that repeat emails about Eco-Gen’s success amounted to mere stalling. So he filed a civil suit against Boaventura-Delanoe, accusing him of operating a racketeer-influenced and corrupt organization. The lawsuit is ongoing.
CALIFORNIA’S GREEN INDUSTRY
Four models of Paul Boaventura-Delanoe’s JouleBox are included under “other eligible solar electric generating technologies” on the California Energy Commission’s list of devices that have met safety and performance standards. But “the California Energy Commission does not confirm manufacturers’ self-reported information,” Albert Lundeen, the commission’s deputy executive director for strategic planning and media, said in an emailed response to my questions.
Steve Uhler, a Sacramento engineer who has lobbied the state to tighten the standards that govern qualifying devices as green-energy producers, questions Eco-Gen’s claims that the JouleBox could multiply the amount of energy produced by solar cells. And he says that California’s green-energy initiatives are ripe for exploitation by people selling questionable technology.
“I am concerned that the state is not doing what should be done to verify and enforce these programs,” Uhler says. “Management needs to improve if the public is to be better protected from those who wish to profit by misleading the public about green energy.”
When I recently reached Boaventura-Delanoe with questions about Eco-Gen and the JouleBox, they were met by a silence on the other end of the line.
For a fleeting instant, I fretted. I hadn’t talked with him in years. Did he remember me? We’d been through a lot together. And then I heard a familiar timbre making a very familiar claim.
“I don’t have a company,” he said.
This was curious, given that Boaventura-Delanoe had presented himself to prospective clients and investors as the man in charge.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Boaventura-Delanoe hung up.
Matt Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @SFMattSmith. This story was produced by Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast at revealnews.org/podcast.