EXCLUSIVE: The email was sent at 8:21 am Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012. Subject line: “Confidential.”
“Have you ever Googled Mark Hotton Long Island?” wrote Marc Thibodeau, press agent for Rebecca the Musical, to lead producer Ben Sprecher about the West Islip, Long Island, stock broker Sprecher hired to raise money. Thibodeau wrote that he discovered “several instances of lawsuits against him for fraud.”
The publicist added that the broker hadn’t produced evidence that an investor named Paul Abrams who purportedly died of malaria — one of four mysterious overseas angels Hotton recruited — ever existed.
At the Rebecca civil trial in lower Manhattan, Sprecher called Thibodeau’s email “irrelevant” and testified that it didn’t prompt him to do a new Internet search or click on a list of lawsuits the press agent attached. “We weren’t even thinking about what, you know, Hotton’s group was doing,” Sprecher said on the witness stand. “We already turned the page on then.”
But arguably, he didn’t turn the page all the way. The day after Thibodeau’s warning, Sprecher and his producing partner, Louise Forlenza, signed documents for a $1.1 million loan arranged by Hotton, according to papers presented in court.
Why did the producers continue to do business with someone eventually unmasked as a confidence man? That may be a question the six-member jury grapples with this week, as they decide on Rebecca Broadway LP’s suit against Thibodeau. Neither the loan nor any of Hotton’s investors ever materialized. (Sprecher had only communicated with the alleged investors by email, and were later confirmed to be fabricated by Hotton.) The producers were forced to cancel the musical, based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel, before rehearsals were to start, on Oct. 1, 2012.
Sprecher referred questions for this story to one of his lawyers, Ron Russo. Russo didn’t return an email or call on Sunday evening.
Thibodeau’s lead lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, has sought to raise questions about Sprecher’s credibility and bolster the thesis that the producers “willingly put their head in the sand” about Hotton, 51, who’s to be released from Federal prison in 2025. In his opening statement, on April 24, Miltenberg said Sprecher “lied to his investors by continuing the Abrams’ Malaria death story after he knew Abrams wasn’t real.”
Thibodeau admitted he sent an anonymous email to a prospective $2.25 million investor, Larry Runsdorf, warning him that a dark cloud was hanging over the production and that major Broadway investors had passed on it. “I believed I was pointing out things someone had a right to know,” Thibodeau testified. “I’ve never worked on a show where I discovered a major fraud was going on.”
The producers maintain that the email led to the man pulling out of the show and its collapse. Thibodeau’s email was “packed with venom and lies,” the production’s lead trial lawyer, Erik Groothuis, said in his opening statement, and the email demolished his clients’ life work. Runsdorf didn’t testify or return an email for comment.
Testimony by Thibodeau and the two lead producers, Sprecher and Forlenza, dominated the trial, which began on April 24 and provides a window into the frenzied last weeks of fundraising and crisis management before producers threw in the towel. Questions about fraud were first raised after Thibodeau issued a press release, on Sept. 8, 2012, based on information from Sprecher and Forlenza, that the show was being delayed while producers worked with the estate of the recently-expired investor to secure a $4.5 million commitment. Two days later, the press agent emailed Sprecher, Forlenza and the production lawyer Scott Lazarus about a conversation he’d had with Patrick Healy, the-then theater reporter at the New York Times.
“He’s getting huge pressure from his editors to find out the name of the mystery investor,” the press agent wrote. “They are feeling like the entire story is suspicious and potentially fictitious, and they are getting a lot of calls from vipers, which apparently means other producers in our business, saying the whole thing doesn’t add up.”
Thibodeau, in the email, wrote that Times editors were concerned that they’d been “duped” into reporting about the dead investor, who Sprecher and Forlenza were led to believe was named Paul Abrams. Healy and Times researchers couldn’t find any obituaries of the co-producers listed for the show, including Abrams. “Are we positive we can’t release the name either on the record or off without attribution?” Thibodeau wrote in the email. “I fear they are going to come after us hard if we don’t.”
Thibodeau testified that he himself researched Hotton and Abrams in an effort to find “anything that could help us make this story go away.” What he found made him more concerned, he said.
By the time Sprecher received Thibodeau’s Sept. 23 email about the lawsuits against Hotton, all that mattered to the producer was getting Rebecca into rehearsal, Sprecher testified. “People who deal with rich people get sued all the time,” Thibodeau recalled Sprecher as saying. “We’ve looked into it. Don’t worry about it.”
Thibodeau said that he was concerned about Sprecher’s matter-of-fact tone. “There was a subsequent phone call just a few minutes after that,” Thibodeau testified, “where he stated to me, ‘and please don’t tell anyone about this. We still need Mark Hotton to raise more money for the show.'”
Under cross-examination, Sprecher said that even after Thibodeau’s email warning about Hotton, “I didn’t have any idea that there was a problem” about Hotton.
“But, this alerted you that there was a problem?” asked lawyer Miltenberg, referring to Thibodeau’s email.
“This did not alert me to anything,” Sprecher said. “I paid no attention to it.”
“You’re going to stick with that answer, sir?”
“I am,” Sprecher said.
Healy reported toward the end of a front-page Times story on Sept. 25 that an email address for an alleged representative of the Abrams estate, who went by the name of Wexler, was created the previous month. And that Wexler, when reached by email, declined to provide any evidence that Abrams was real. The reporting didn’t sway Sprecher. “I never got that far in this article,” he testified.
After the story, Thibodeau examined agreements with Hotton’s investors that Sprecher had made available to him. They were clearly fraudulent, the press agent testified. On Sept. 28, under the pseudonym Sarah Finkelstein, Thibodeau sent the email to the prospective investor warning him about investing in the show. The following day, under his own name, Thibodeau sent a resignation letter to Sprecher.
“I still in my heart want to believe that you have somehow been duped/scammed rather than you having been a part of it, but during the past two weeks you’ve given me absolutely nothing to help help me defend you to the press, and in fact some of what you gave me or things you said to Healy only increased my deep concerns about the veracity of the story,” he wrote. Thibodeau also cited “the fictitious, non-existent Australian address, phone number, and e-mail for Paul Abrams,” which “essentially proves he wasn’t real.”
Sprecher testified that he continued to believe that Abrams had been real until he got a call that Mark Hotton was arrested, on Oct. 15, 2012.