The saga of international developer Bashar Issa started as a fairy tale, transitioned into courtroom melodrama and now borders on theater of the absurd.
It also has the makings of a pretty good movie.
Issa is the Kuwati-born Iraqi who came to Buffalo from Great Britain in 2006 and was once the professed savior of Buffalo’s landmark Statler Hotel – before his project flamed out in bankruptcy in 2008.
Life hasn’t gotten any better for him back in England, where the 35-year-old was jailed Monday for masterminding a scheme to defraud the British government of millions in tax relief offered to filmmakers.
Issa and four others, working under the name Evolved Pictures, claimed to be making a movie for £19 million (nearly $29 million), which would have allowed them to receive £2.8 million (nearly $4.25 million) in tax paybacks, according to British tax authorities.
Investigators, though, found that the £19 million was never spent.
Although the scheme has been compared by some to the plot of the Academy Award-winning film “Argo,” which tells of how fake moviemakers helped rescue Americans in Iran, Issa’s story is more like that of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” in which two hapless con men try to fleece investors in a designed-to-fail Broadway show.
Issa, who now goes by Bashar Al-Issa, was accused of being the gang’s leader and was sentenced Monday in London’s Southwark Crown Court to six years in prison, news reports said.
Four others were sentenced to about four years each.
HM Revenue & Customs, the British tax authorities, reported on its website that this was the country’s first prosecution for film tax fraud.
“Evolved Pictures told HMRC that millions of pounds had been spent on the film, including paying actors and film set managers. ... However, during checks HMRC found that the work had not been done and most of the so-called suppliers and film studios had never heard of the gang,” HMRC said in a news release.
The title of the phony film, “A Landscape of Lies” (at first called “A Landscape of Lives”) adds further irony to the case, which started a couple of years ago.
“After they were arrested [in 2011], the gang came up with an elaborate plan to cover their tracks and hide the fraud by shooting a film on a shoestring, called ‘A Landscape of Lies,’ featuring two television personalities,” HMRC also reported.
Somehow word was spread and widely reported that the makeshift movie won an award at the 2012 Las Vegas Film Festival, adding to its backstory – but also untrue.
Contacted on Tuesday, a representative of the Las Vegas festival said “Landscape of Lies” absolutely did not receive an award, or even a screening.
“They submitted the film but it was not accepted,” the spokeswoman told The Buffalo News.
Issa’s jailing signals a dramatic fall from the days in 2006 when the dashing young developer came to Buffalo, bought the derelict old hotel on Niagara Square and promised not only to revitalize the landmark but also to add another building to the skyline. The new 40-story structure – the tallest in the city – would be built a block north of City Hall on South Elmwood Avenue and West Mohawk Street, at a cost of $361 million, he said at the time.
Within three years, the Statler was in bankruptcy, the skyscraper never left the drawing table and Bashar Issa was long gone, leaving behind nothing more than a few ties and jackets in a cluttered room he had occupied at the once grand hotel.
Buffalo developer Mark Croce, who now owns the Statler Towers and is continuing with an ambitious renovation plan of his own, is not surprised at Issa’s ongoing troubles.
“There was something fraudulent about his persona from the time he first came here,” Croce said Tuesday. “I wasn’t interested in the Statler at the time, but still it was clear his numbers didn’t add up. He had no idea what he was doing, but he had an awful lot of people drinking the Kool-Aid, coming in like a white knight that had the silver bullet for all our problems, which I never understood.”
Issa did do some construction work in the hotel while it was under his ownership, and some of it was for the good, Croce said, citing improvements to the electrical system and elevators.
“But a lot of the stuff he did on the lower floors was bad for the building, and it took us a lot of work to undo it,” Croce said.
Meanwhile, in London, John Pointing, assistant director of criminal investigation at HMRC, had this take on Issa and Company:
“This gang thought they could exploit rules for genuine British filmmakers and thieve from the public purse for their own gain. They were wrong. ... We are pleased that instead of this film flop going straight to DVD, these small-screen Z-listers are going straight to jail.”