BRIAN DINNING, a tax attorney and former resident of Suffolk who is charged with 25 counts of wire fraud in connection with investments made in projects in South Africa, has been blogging about the ventures, painting himself as the victim of a years-long negative press campaign that doomed his efforts at what he billed to investors as "social entrepreneurship."
"As I am writing this series, I have been wrongly accused of wire fraud related to social venture projects in Africa and face a trial in the United States," he wrote on June 27. "While I do not believe I have done anything criminal, that decision is likely in the hands of a jury of my peers and I hope and pray that the truth and justice will ultimately prevail."
But a video made of Dinning and three companions on a visit to a South African wildlife preserve shows a different side of the man who says, according to his blog, that his mission for 16 years has been to help the African people, "not to mention the wildlife that is counting on us for safety and protection."
The video, obtained by Inside Business, shows Dinning and the others harassing elephants from a vehicle on a 2007 visit to Kruger National Park, behavior that is outlawed in South Africa.
As of press time Thursday, Dinning had not been arrested for investor fraud and his whereabouts were unknown, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in Norfolk. Many who know him say he's likely in Canada, the home country of his wife, Sommer Maynard Dinning.
Dinning, 47, was indicted June 6 by a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that he fraudulently obtained about $2.9 million from investor contributions, much of which he used for "personal and family gain, for payment of his personal expenses and for repayment to previous disgruntled investors."
The indictment accuses him of a scheme that hinged on promoting investment opportunities in South Africa and also convincing his wealthy investors to make charitable donations to not-for-profit ventures he created to lift up poor communities there. He told some investors they would receive a monetary return on their charitable contributions in addition to a tax deduction, the indictment says.
Dinning's blog, a history of all the good he says he's done in Africa during his 60 trips there and justifications for why some ventures went bad, reads as though it is a rehearsal for a courtroom defense.
"The purpose of this series is to tell my side of the story, complete with letters, video, emails, documents and all backed up by witnesses," the blog says.
"I also want my family, friends and others to know the truth behind the delays, slowdowns, obstacles and impossible situations we faced when doing social ventures in Africa. While it has been disheartening at times and sometimes I just want to give up, I often think of men like Nelson Mandela, who endured years in prison only to be released to become the president of South Africa."
Although it may seem bold for a fugitive who's being sought by the FBI to post blog entries, those who know Dinning say he's using the blog as his bullhorn, and that fits his self-promotional style. He seems to have a Teflon-like coating that deflects criticism back to its source, they say, often with lots of theatrics.
The defendant in five investor lawsuits, Dinning at least twice filed countersuits. The most recent, filed in February in Suffolk Circuit Court, was a complex civil case that named 10 defendants - American investors and attorneys, and two South Africans - charging them with defamation, libel, slander as well as interference with business relationships. One defendant said that none of the 10 were ever served.
Theatrics of another kind pervade the video that was mailed to Inside Business by two South Africans who had worked for several years on real estate projects with Dinning along the country's Wild Coast until they began to grow suspicious about his ventures.
The video shows Dinning and three companions taunting a herd of elephants, adults and their young, with an automobile as if it were a weapon.
The video is narrated by Dinning, who says to the camera, that he and his companions are "going to rob nature of its beauty by being drunk and stupid and game-viewing." The video shows him repeatedly using epithets and screams of profanities to intimidate the dominant elephant when it makes charges toward the car to apparently protect the herd.
The video was left on the hard drive of a computer Dinning had given to the two South African business colleagues, one of them wrote in an email.
In another email that makes reference to the video, the same South African wrote, "Chasing and inciting elephants is totally banned in our country."
In the video, Dinning and his companions appear to be violating that ban. The men repeatedly scream at the dominant elephant, and when it charges them, apparently to ward off the threat to the herd, the driver accelerates toward the elephants, causing the lead elephant to retreat.
Like many of Dinning's former investors and business partners who have been interviewed, the two South African businessmen who mailed Inside Business the video don't want their names used for this story, at least not until Dinning has been arrested.
Some investors who are prominent in the business and professional community locally and elsewhere - one runs a $125 million business in California - say they don't want their names used because they are embarrassed to have turned over large sums of money to Dinning without performing due diligence. Many say he was pious and persuasive when making the pitch that he could help investors do good and make money at the same time, especially with investors who were devout Christians, as Dinning himself professes to be.
At least four Regent University professors made investments or contributions to his businesses and at one time, three sat on one of Dinning's nonprofit boards. Dinning holds a law degree from Regent.
In addition to the evangelical Christian community here and elsewhere, Dinning targeted local medical professionals as he was establishing his blended for-profit and nonprofit model in 2005 and 2006.
Four investor lawsuits were settled out of court but in a fifth, a Norfolk jury ordered Dinning in May 2010 to pay more than $722,000 to a Pennsylvania couple who sought legal guidance from Dinning to set up what they intended to be a charity to help orphans in the African country of Malawi after the couple received $220,000 in retirement money.
The outcome of that lawsuit, reported by Inside Business in October 2010 and by a South African newspaper in June 2011, became a turning point in the Dinning saga.
Dinning was employed by Kundra Associates Tax Attorneys in Rockville, Md., at the time of the verdict but has not worked there since October 2010. Soon after, he returned to Somerset County, Pa., his original home. There, he continued to try to raise funds, purportedly for use in social venture projects, according to an investor from the Somerset area.
The verdict in the 2010 case reinvigorated many investors who'd grown impatient with the longtime federal investigation of Dinning. Not one of the many investors interviewed over the years by Inside Business has ever seen any financial return on their investments or evidence of meaningful activity on the ground in South Africa.
"All we saw in South Africa," said a Hampton Roads investor who's traveled to the Wild Coast, "was Brian and his wife throwing candy to the children out of the back of a truck."
Dinning's original intention for the Wild Coast, the stunning stretch of undeveloped land that hugs the Indian Ocean, was an eco-tourism project to include luxury villas and a hotel, a golf course, and nature preserves that would offer wildlife safaris, all places that would employ local residents. That is what he said in a November 2006 interview with this publication.
Since that first story on Dinning, Inside Business has written many more, covering his court cases and indictment as well as his connection to WexTrust Capital, where he worked as corporate counsel from May to December 2004. Two WexTrust principals are now serving lengthy prison sentences for defrauding investors out of more than $100 million.
WexTrust surfaces in Dinning's July 1 blog entry. He writes that he was asked by WexTrust in June 2004 to help oversee three social venture projects in Africa - a mining project, a farming project and a nature reserve.
"By the end of 2004," the blog reads, "I had witnessed enough of WexTrust Capital to know that they were not the appropriate financial partner for the social ventures.... Because of the significant financial, tax, legal and social transgressions I witnessed by WexTrust Capital, I told all of the South African social venture partners that it was better to give up everything including all ownership rights and projects to WexTrust Capital because you do not want to be in business with them now or in the future."
In his blog, Dinning repeatedly blames the lack of progress on the ground in Africa on some financial partners who exhibited what he said was unprofessional behavior on trips to South Africa and the negative press campaign against him by disgruntled American investors and their lawyers. As obstacles mounted, he was compelled to seek new partners and strategies, which ultimately derailed his projects, Dinning writes.
"Why does it seem to be so difficult to help the poor in Africa?," the July 13 blog reads. "I know that Oprah Winfrey had a very hard time starting up her social venture project in Africa and the Washington Post and others have reported on the United Nations aid workers' sexual abuse of children and also on billions in stolen aid money and corrupt practices by U.S. companies."
Another entry reads, "One thing that I still have is the heart and passion to help the needy communities and hopefully make a positive change for future generations."
That sentiment contrasts sharply with some of the final words spoken by Dinning on the Kruger Park video:
"South Africans suck."
Story by Mary Flachsenhaar
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