For an itinerant who has lived in a homeless shelter and traveled on Greyhound buses, Lawrence Niren thinks big.
He has made bids for companies such as Sony Corp. and Playboy Enterprises Inc. Niren's deals fizzle when he fails to name backers, yet that doesn't stop him. He pops up again to target new prey under a variety of aliases.
"I am an unbelievable liar," Niren said in a note filed as an exhibit in a 1992 divorce. "I fool everyone because I am such a good actor that I sometimes am even able to fool myself."
His game may be coming to an end. The Securities and Exchange Commission sued Niren June 29 in a fraud case, accusing him of buying shares or stock options of five companies and then announcing phony takeovers to drive up prices, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York.
The SEC told Niren he is also under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors, he said in court papers. Niren says he is preparing his defense in Argentina, where he has a home, a fiancee and cats.
The case of Niren, who devoured Franz Kafka literature and Beatles music in his youth, shows how someone with a lot of guile and a bit of information can roil markets in the Internet age. He used e-mail and online message boards to broadcast takeover bids of little substance to investors around the world, court records and interviews show.
The Internet, with its reach and anonymity, provides the ideal environment for con artists, said Mark Rasch, who oversaw computer crime investigations at the Justice Department.
"There are tens of thousands of people who have the ability to do this," said Rasch, a lawyer in Washington who now works at FTI Consulting Inc.
Companies that have been targeted by Niren typically have not known him by that name. He has used multiple aliases, including Theodore Roxford, Theodore Vakil and Edward Pastorini, in his phony takeover bids, the SEC suit says. Pastorini is a New Jersey musician who has known Niren since at least the 1970s. Niren has also identified him as a step-cousin.
In April, a man identifying himself as Pastorini said he sent a document to as many as 20 mining companies encouraging them to join a bid for Johannesburg, South Africa-based Gold Fields Ltd., the world's fourth-largest gold producer. The phone number on the document was one Niren uses.
Gold Fields shares rose as much as 11 percent April 11 after Bloomberg News reported the apparent offer, basing the story on documents provided by a Gold Fields executive on the condition of anonymity. The stock gain vanished after a blog published by the Financial Times questioned Pastorini's credentials.
South Africa's Financial Services Board is investigating trading in Gold Fields shares. The company is not mentioned in the SEC complaint.
U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel last week denied Niren's request that a court hearing Friday in New York be adjourned or that he be allowed to participate by phone from Argentina.
Niren would not comment yesterday when he returned a call made to his California phone number. In ensuing calls, he offered an interview with himself and Pastorini in his attorney's office in Argentina, provided some of his legal fees were paid.
In an Aug. 8 e-mail, Niren said his clients included "tons of mining companies, leverage buyout firms and raiders." He said he could produce "wires and checks and contracts and letters from dozens of former clients."
"You want the whole truth, then pay for it," he wrote.
Later, he sent another e-mail mocking media reports about him and the SEC complaint: "I am Theodore Roxford, I am Lawrence Niren, I am Elvis, I am Edward Pastorini, I am Spartacus, I am Humpty Dumpty, I am Theodore Vakil. And the hits just keep on coming."
Niren changed his name to Roxford in 1995, according to a California court filing. He now says he prefers using Niren.
The real Pastorini, a member of the rock band 101 Crustaceans, did not reply to phone messages and e-mails or to messages left at his home in Dunellen, N.J. The SEC suit does not allege Pastorini was involved in Niren's schemes.
For at least a decade, Niren, who often wears his hair in a ponytail, has floated takeover offers that lifted stock prices and then fell through.
In February 2003, Niren sent a letter to then-Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei offering to purchase all of the company's shares for $78 billion. Ten months later, he offered to buy Playboy. SEC spokesman John Nester declined to comment on why the SEC did not sue Niren until 2007.
The life of Lawrence David Niren is a study in hubris and deceit, according to court records. He concocts deals while jumping from trailer park to homeless shelter to hotel rooms in San Francisco's crime-ridden Tenderloin neighborhood, using mail drops for addresses.
He has also tried his hand at music and writing. Niren circulated fliers to form a Beatles-influenced band in Boston in the 1970s. Niren said in 2005 court filings that he was working on a novel about "the life of Jesus in modern times."
Niren was born in 1953, and lived in the city of Cote Saint-Luc next to Montreal. He met his first wife, Katherina, on a Greyhound bus. Niren filed for bankruptcy in 1986, two months after Katherina gave birth to their son in Florida. Niren listed debts of $1.5 million. He owed $300,000 to Katherina's relatives and was living on $214 a week in unemployment benefits.
The couple became nomadic, moving 17 times in 13 years of marriage, divorce papers filed in 1990 by Katherina show.
There were also successes. Records from Niren's divorce indicate that companies controlled by billionaire Boone Pickens paid Niren $250,000 in 1987. That year, Niren suggested Vancouver, B.C.-based Cornucopia Resources Ltd. participate in what turned out to be Pickens' unsuccessful $6.3 billion bid for Newmont Mining Corp. in Denver, said Andrew Milligan, Cornucopia's president at the time.
"Lawrence had imagination and just sheer gall," said Milligan, now chairman of ValGold Resources Ltd. in Vancouver. He did not pursue Newmont with Pickens.
Pickens does not remember getting Niren's advice, said Michael Boswell, vice president of Mesa Power LP, an affiliate of Pickens' BP Capital LLC. "I think he was paid a fee as a finder," he said.
Niren and Katherina divorced in 1992. He was married twice more.
Niren told the SEC to contact him through a post office box in Mendoza, a city in Argentina's wine country.
In April, Niren asked employees at Mendoza's Aconcagua Hotel to let him receive calls while he waited for lodging to be arranged. Desk clerks who recognized his photo said he wore John Lennon-style glasses.
Niren regards Lennon reverently, friends and relatives say. In 1990, he used the words of a Lennon song in a note Katherina had filed in their divorce case.
"You may wonder: If I've loved you, how could I have lied to you about things?" he wrote. "Like the song says, 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey.'"