Investors ask ‘where’s the money?’

While the Comstock Country Music Festival organizers continue asking for patience, investors in last year’s festival say their patience is wearing very thin. They say they are still waiting for their money, and have serious doubts about the future of the festival One of those investors is Aaron Kirk, a businessman who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He says he is one of just several people who trusted Mike Gibson, who was working with Bill Kann at the time, and ended up losing thousands of dollars in the music festivals venture. Kirk says he wants to tell his story because “I don’t want them to rip other people off, because that is the history they have.” If you gathered from Kirk’s words that he is angry, you’re right. He is. He says he feels used and manipulated by someone he thought he could trust. Kirk has known Gibson for several years. In fact, Kirk explains that Gibson worked for him at one time. In February 2010, Gibson approached Kirk with his friend, Bill Kann. The two men explained a business venture they were embarking on to Kirk and asked if he would be interested in becoming involved with a music festival. Kirk requested the men provide documentation that the music festival was legitimate and viable, such as tax returns. They did. Seeing this as a good business opportunity, Kirk told Gibson that he thought perhaps he and another gentleman could possibly fund the production of the festival. Kirk took the idea to his friend, but says while waiting for his friend to decide whether or not to come in on the project, he agreed to put up the money to book the opening acts so they could begin selling tickets. According to Kirk, Kann and Gibson had promised the investors they would see their money back - plus interest - 10 days after the festival. Kirk and Gibson were in the entertainment bus industry at the time. Kirk says that prior to working for him, Gibson owned his own company until going out of business in 2008. Bill Kann drove for Gibson in that business. As the 2010 festival date loomed closer, Kirk began to get nervous. He says he was warned by several friends in the entertainment industry that the event would not be a success due to the lack of headline artists - artists that no one seemed to be able to book. “Nobody would touch it (the festival) with a 10-foot pole,” Kirk says. Fearing he had made a mistake, Kirk says he tried to pull out and get his money back. At first he was told he could get it all back except 10 percent. But Gibson and Kann kept working on trying to convince Kirk that they had investors for the project. Kirk says he later found out that one of those investors was one of his clients, who reportedly withdrew $50,000 from his retirement account to invest with Gibson and Kann with the promise of doubling his money. “This gentleman had a signed contract with a licensed business; he thought he was safe,” Kirk explains. “Needless to say, he is probably not my client any more.” Kirk says the list of duped investors continued to grow, and even included a church and its Pastor. Greg Begley is the senior Pastor at Refuge Community Worship Center in Dayton, Ohio; the church where Mike Gibson sat on the board. Pastor Begley says Gibson approached the church board with what he called an “outreach opportunity.” Gibson told the board about a music festival he was involved with in Comstock, Neb. Pastor Begley says Gibson explained his idea of hiring a couple of Gospel music groups and some inspirational speakers on Sunday of the festival, to “get the word of God out to the crowd.” The church board agreed the outreach potential, as well as the promise of earning an additional $20,000, was worth the investment, and gave Gibson $45,000 from the church building fund to put toward the project. In a phone interview with the Chief, Pastor Begley explained that the church was in the process of building a new building at the time. The old church building had been sold and property had been purchased for the new one when Gibson approached the board. Begley says the board was guaranteed their money would go into an escrow account and would not be touched until the day of the festival, and that it would be used strictly for funding the Gospel end of the festival. Begley was also commissioned to present the Sunday morning message during Cowboy Church on the final day of the music festival. Begley explains that Kann and Gibson conducted a conference telephone call with all the members of the church board, and the promise was made that the church would receive their initial $45,000 investment back on the first day of the festival. The church was to then receive an additional $20,000 on the final day of the festival. That wasn’t all. Pastor Begley says he felt such a desire to help make this happen that he invested $10,000 of his own money, and his brother-in-law invested $14,000 of his money with Gibson. None of them have yet seen a dime of their money returned. “My wife and I went to Comstock and decided to work the concessions just to make a little extra money and to oversee the church’s investment,” says Begley. “When we got there we could clearly see we were lied to about the number of tickets that had been sold. Nobody was there!” Begley says he and his wife worked the entire weekend with the expectation of making a few thousand dollars. Instead, they made a total of $364 - and still have not been paid for that. To his disappointment, Begley also discovered that the “cowboy church” he had been told about was not even on the schedule. In fact, there were no Gospel events on Sunday’s schedule at all! Begley says when he questioned Gibson about the Sunday schedule he was told it was just miscommunication. Begley says the red flags just kept coming. Shortly after he arrived at the festival site, Kann approached him and asked to use his social security number to purchase merchandise for the vendors. Begley was skeptical, but was already so invested in the project he complied. “Thank goodness they never did use it,” says Begley about the personal information he provided. Other investors, according to Kirk and Pastor Begley, were also told they would get all their money back plus - 10 days after the completion of the festival. Ten days came and went with no fulfillment of that promise. Kirk says since the festival last August, at least seven different dates have been set for repayment by Kann and Gibson. Just two weeks ago Kirk had a telephone conference with the investors and they reported the same thing - still no money. Begley says as a result of this failed investment, the church had to cancel the order for the new building. He says he has also discovered that Kann did not follow through with his promise on the escrow account. According to Begley, the church’s money was put in such an account the day they handed it over, but the very next day Kann signed himself as executor of the account and withdrew all the money. Begley says the church board and the church members have been very lenient and patient, and have not pursued any other action in hopes they would one day get their money back. Not all the investors of last year’s festival share Kirk and Begley’s opinions however. Rich Hicks, the client Kirk referred to earlier, is the largest individual investor of the festivals, and says he still believes the festivals will happen. Hicks says he is confident that the money will come through, and he and the rest of the investors will get what they were promised. Hicks does agree that the communication between Kann and the investors has not been good. In the May 26, 2011, edition of the Custer County Chief we ran information contained in a press release from Bill Kann’s office which announced the postponement of this year’s country music festival. The festival was originally scheduled for June 2-5, but according to the press release was rescheduled for Aug. 18-20. The reason for the delay, as stated in that press release was as follows: “Comstock Music Festivals is currently working on some new and exciting things with its festival series. The festivals are under a new management regime which is currently in the process of purchasing the entire plot of land on which the festival resides on.” The release went on to say this purchase “enables management to bring the fans an enhanced concert experience along with more freedom in entertainment and activities on the grounds.” Kirk says he spoke to Bill Kann on the phone June 7, and Kann claimed to know nothing about this press release. “I asked him about this new management regime that was mentioned in the article, and he said the festival was not under new management and that he didn’t know what I was talking about,” said Kirk. Jim Trotter currently owns the rural Comstock property which is the host site of the music festivals. Trotter did confirm to the Chief that he had been in negotiations with Kann for the sale of the property, but that he had not heard from him in a while. Trotter says no money has exchanged hands, and would not comment on whether or not he had received payment from Kann for the lease of the property for last year’s festival. A check at the Custer County Register of Deeds office confirms the property in question is still owned by Trotter. The May press release provided information to ticket holders who may want a refund for the concert. However, when the Chief tried that number it would not go through. In fact, the Chief tried every avenue listed on the website to contact someone within the music festival organization and got nowhere. The Chief did speak with Mike Gibson, who confirmed he was in partnership with Bill Kann and his role in the company was to find investors. Gibson also confirmed that Kirk and Begley were both investors that he brought to Kann. However, Gibson says he has not talked to Kann recently and says he does not know what the status is of the festival. “I’m like you and everybody else, just sitting on the side lines waiting to see what’s going to happen,” said Gibson. In a telephone interview with the Chief two weeks ago, Kann emphatically stated that Mike Gibson no longer is associated in any way with the music festivals. Kann also expressed regret for the way things have turned out this year, and repeatedly stated that he has every intention of paying back everything he owes. Kirk says that unlike the other investors he was able to get at least some of his money back, through what he says is a friendship with the booking agent. Kirk says Kann still owes him $12,000. Pastor Begley says he fell in love with the local people when he visited Comstock, and does not want to see them taken advantage of. As for Kann’s promise that the money is on its way and everything will be paid in full, Kirk and Begley say they have heard that before. And while they hope it is true, they say they are not getting their hopes up.