Alternative fuel guru's investors don't feel defrauded -- except by the feds

There's an unusual and somewhat drawn-out sentencing hearing unfolding in federal court this week, as U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock ponders what to do with William Orr, an inventor and promoter who spent decades developing patents for an octane-boosting, emissions-reducing gasoline blend -- only to run afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, postal inspectors and a host of other federal regulators.

Orr's case is a complicated one. As reported in my 2008 feature, "Nobody's Fuel," prosecutors convicted him last May on 23 counts of mail fraud, making false statements to the EPA and failure to file tax returns. But Orr also has a number of respected scientists and alternative-fuel experts still defending him, insisting that the technology he developed could be viable. It's undisputed that the EPA shut down his $3.2 million research grant just when he was on the verge of tests by an independent lab that would have demonstrated that either Orr was deluded or that the EPA had been cooking the science on its own emissions requirements.

But the most surprising aspect of the current sentencing hearing is the number of long-suffering investors who are testifying on Orr's behalf -- including some who were reluctant prosecution witnesses during the trial. If Orr is a charlatan, as the government claims, why does he still have so many true believers at this late date?

A key aspect of the government's case is that Orr misrepresented his technology to investors, bilking them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by leading them to believe that the product worked and would soon be marketable. But many (though not all) of the major investors have testified that they don't feel cheated at all -- that they're satisfied Orr plowed the money into research and defending the patents. They haven't suffered losses, they say, except to the extent that the EPA investigation damaged Orr's chances of proving the fuel's worth and allowed some valuable patents to expire.

"The investors are in a better position to know what they've lost than the government is," insisted David Lewis, who invested $165,000 in Orr's company over a period of several years. According to Lewis, federal investigators tried to convince him that Orr had no research lab (he did) and that he was using the investment money for extravagant personal expenses (never proven), in an effort to recruit him as a prosecution witness.

"A lot of that stuff was misleading," Lewis told the judge. "I've been investing in start-ups since the 1960s. The con artists are always easy to spot. They're having other people do the work while they're driving around in fancy cars.... Bill always drove a beat-up junker. He never wore fancy clothes. He didn't live in a mansion. He never spent money in any way I could see, and he was always working hard on his patents."

Orr, who has no prior criminal record, could spend up to a decade behind bars. Or Judge Babcock could heed the investors, who claim no good can come of sending such a brilliant if erratic fellow to prison, and that their only real hope or recovering their money could come from a probationary sentence that would allow Orr to work at repaying them.

Tellingly, the government was able to present several disgruntled investors as witnesses at trial -- but most have since signed a shareholders' resolution urging mercy for Orr. The only prosecution witnesses presented at the hearing all work for the feds: a postal inspector, an EPA investigator and an IRS special agent. Conspicuously absent were any of the "victims" of Bill Orr's crime spree, with the exception of aggrieved tax collectors and bureaucrats -- possibly the least sympathetic victims on the planet.

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