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Crime & Courts

Former CEO of Alaska fiber-optic project faces federal fraud charge

The former chief executive of a company overseeing an Arctic fiber-optic project in Alaska has been arrested and charged with fraudulently inducing two investment companies to commit more than $250 million to the project, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Elizabeth Pierce was CEO of Quintillion until 2017. (Provided by World Trade Center Anchorage)

Elizabeth A. Pierce, 54 and head of Quintillion until her resignation in August 2017, used forged contracts to persuade the investors, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. Pierce surrendered to authorities Thursday morning in New York and has been charged with one count of wire fraud.

The investment companies are based in New York.

"To realize her plan to build a fiber optic system that would service Alaska and connect it to the Lower 48 states, Elizabeth Ann Pierce allegedly convinced two investment companies that she had secured signed contracts that would supposedly generate hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed future revenue from the system," U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said.

The sales agreements were worthless because customers had not signed them, Berman said.

"Instead, as alleged, Pierce had forged counterparty signatures on contract after contract," Berman said. "As a result of Pierce's deception, the investment companies were left with a system that is worth far less than Pierce had led them to believe."

Pierce's scheme ran from May 2015 to July 2017, the charges said.

Anchorage-based Quintillion operates a fiber-optic cable system in Alaska that connects to the Lower 48, including a subsea segment across the Alaska Arctic and a land segment along the Dalton Highway, the statement said.

Quintillion has had much larger ambitions for the fiber-optic project, connecting Asia to Europe with lines extending across Alaska.

Quintillion announced in February that after two summers of installation, its subsea fiber-optic cable to serve Alaska launched in five northern communities. The company said it had brought 21st-century communications services to Alaska's Arctic for the first time, enabling high-speed broadband capability in Utqiagvik, Wainwright, Point Hope, Nome and Kotzebue.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Quintillion said it became aware of the situation involving Pierce last year, and "took swift action and self-reported to the Department of Justice."

"Quintillion has been cooperating fully with the authorities during this ongoing investigation," the statement said.

The board hired George Tronsrue III as interim CEO in August 2017, the statement said.

"The ongoing investigation has not impacted Quintillion's operations nor the quality of its services," the statement said.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corp. is a minority investor in the project, and is not one of the two investors discussed in the federal court complaint. The regional Native corporation said in a media statement that it does not support Pierce's "alleged behavior."

ASRC said the board acted swiftly to address the claims of misconduct.

"This will not impact our involvement in the Subsea Cable Project," said the statement, emailed by ASRC spokesman Ty Hardt. "Having the ability to link our communities to the rest of the world by fiber optic remains a singular world-changing benefit to the ASRC region, and we will continue to support Quintillion's efforts to improve broadband capabilities across the Arctic."

According to a complaint filed in federal court and unsealed Thursday, Pierce forged five contracts promising revenue from broadband capacity sales.

Pierce created the "fake" agreements to make it appear as though a handful of telecommunications companies in Alaska were committing to pay about $1 billion over long periods to purchase wholesale quantities of bandwidth from Quintillion, the complaint says.

Those telecommunications companies, and the investment companies, are not named in the complaint.

Based on the false promises, one of the investment firms invested more than $200 million into the project, becoming Quintillion's largest shareholder, the complaint says. That investor, unaware the documents were forged, also spearheaded Quintillion's efforts to bring in the second investor and $50 million.

Cooper Investment Partners is the lead investor in the Quintillion project, according to Quintillion's website.

An official with Cooper Investment, based in New York City, did not immediately return a phone call Thursday seeking comment for this article.

The complaint says that in April 2017, a Quintillion worker sent invoices to one of the Alaska telecommunications companies. That company disputed the requests, saying it had not yet ordered any capacity from Quintillion.

That company sent its actual agreement with Quintillion to the leading investment firm, raising questions about the fraudulent deal.

The investment company launched an internal investigation that led to the discovery of the other fake agreements and the unraveling of Pierce's fraud, the complaint says.

On July 16, 2017, an official with the investment firm took screenshots of a Google Drive account where Pierce had kept the fake agreements, the complaint says. The screenshot showed that Pierce had two days earlier moved "78 items to the trash."

The fictitious deals were recovered from Google after the FBI obtained a search warrant, the complaint says.

Around that time, Pierce "abruptly resigned" from Quintillion, the complaint says.

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