Falling star

In the black business community, Alphonso Solomon's promise isn't worth much anymore

It wasn't long ago that Alphonso Solomon was considered a rising star among black business owners in Dallas, a walking testament to the notion that ambition and business savvy could bring prosperity to the city's minority community.

Solomon had started three independent companies in South Dallas--a consulting business, a janitorial service, and an accounting firm. His business acumen landed him contracts and contacts with large and small clients, lured by his promises of financial prowess. It also landed him volunteer positions on economic development boards and even a Quest for Success award, given by the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce to black entrepreneurs who make a difference. He was, it seemed, a man on the rise.

But Solomon's businesses are now in receivership, some of his contacts have distanced themselves from him, and his reputation has been battered by lawsuits filed by people who were once his business allies.

Solomon spends much of his time in court, locked in a 4-year-old legal battle that began when a former employer accused him of stealing money, and former business partners accused him of usurping their dreams. The battle has spawned a mountain of legal paperwork, actions by a bevy of attorneys, and lingering bitterness. Lawsuits have prompted countersuits that have begotten appeals, eventually forcing Solomon to file for bankruptcy.

The legal labyrinth obscures an easy answer to the most puzzling question about Solomon:Is he the smart, resilient businessman some people believe is beset by hard times and harsh accusations, or an opportunistic hustler who seduces other minority business owners, gains their trust, and then takes their money and their dreams?

The answer depends on whom you ask.
"He's a highly principled individual," says Mike Massad Jr., one of Solomon's former attorneys. "He has the courage of his convictions. He believes in his own abilities. He is determined."

Massad represented Solomon during one of the many phases of Solomon's bankruptcy proceeding. Massad parted amicably with Solomon, he says, because Solomon was uncompromising in his insistence about how the bankruptcy be handled, and Massad could not continue to work for a client who wouldn't take his advice.

Josephine Latson's view of Solomon is less generous. Latson and her husband, Donald, own a garage-door repair company and used to rent space from a corporation Solomon controlled. Solomon evicted the couple's business, they say, when the Latsons protested his high-handed behavior.

"I think Solomon is a shark," Josephine Latson says.
For his own part, Solomon isn't saying anything. Visits, phone calls, and a letter sent to his DeSoto home by the Dallas Observer produced no response.

Documents filed in the myriad legal proceedings that have engulfed Solomon, however, paint a picture of a smart, tenacious businessman who has nonetheless turned many of his former allies against him.

In 1985, Solomon became involved with Graham Barber College. The college, founded in 1968 by Johnny Graham, is a venerable Dallas institution. For almost three decades, it has trained barbers and hair stylists who have fanned out across North Texas. The college now has eight locations.

The college initially brought Solomon in as a management consultant, and in 1987 Solomon was awarded a contract to run the business, court records show.

The contract gave Solomon and his consulting firm--Alphonso Solomon Company Inc.--a free hand running the day-to-day operations, and control of the books. It also gave him 10,000 shares of the company's stock, and provided that Solomon would succeed Johnny Graham as president of the college's board of trustees. Later, as a board member, Solomon bought 20,000 more shares of the company's stock.

In 1988, Johnny Graham stepped down as president of Graham Barber College for health reasons. After Graham's departure from the college, Solomon became president of the board of directors. Graham died in October 1990.

Initially, court documents indicate, the college did well under Solomon's management. Gross revenues steadily increased, and the college turned a profit. But after Graham died, the relationship between Solomon and the college's other principal shareholders--Graham's widow, LaFrance, and his two oldest associates, Emmanuel Phillips and Robert Brown Sr.--deteriorated.

According to an affidavit later filed by LaFrance Graham, a check of the college's books revealed that--after her husband's death--Solomon began paying himself and his companies a lot more money than they were entitled to.

Mrs. Graham also claimed that Solomon issued himself more than 16,000 shares of company stock without authorization. Some of the college's checks began to bounce, she claimed, because Solomon was taking money from college accounts. She, Brown, and Phillips said that Solomon took more than $500,000 from the college between 1989 and 1993.

Ultimately, Mrs. Graham and other shareholders sued Solomon, claiming he was improperly siphoning money from the college. Solomon sued back, and a complex legal wrangle ensued.

Perhaps the most lucid rendition of what happened is contained in an order handed down last year by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Felsenthal, who wound up with the task of sifting through the tangle of litigation resulting from Solomon's stewardship of the college. The Graham Barber College litigation was ultimately swallowed up in Solomon's bankruptcy.

"A suit brought to get Alphonso Solomon's attention has multiplied into an acrimonious dissolution of a business relationship gone sour," Felsenthal's order began. "The court must sort through the wreckage."

Solomon's accusers said Solomon had improperly bled about one-half-million dollars from the college. Solomon, on the other hand, claimed he was entitled to all the money he paid himself and his companies.

After studying the case, the judge saw it differently than Solomon. Felsenthal concluded that Solomon could not justify $224,724 of the money he had taken from the college, and ordered Solomon to pay it back. Many of the payments Solomon made to himself after Johnny Graham died were never properly recorded in the college's books, the judge found.

Solomon appealed Felsenthal's ruling, and lost twice on appeal. A bankruptcy trustee has since struck a deal in which Solomon would give up all his interest and stock in the college in exchange for $80,000. While the barber college has agreed to the deal, and Felsenthal has signed off on it, Solomon is appealing.

Even as he was sinking into controversy at Graham Barber College, Solomon became involved with another business venture that would end in messy litigation.

Solomon was approached in 1991 by a fledgling black business cooperative led by Dr. Willie Harris. A graphic designer, Harris had a dream that would allow black businessmen to own their own building. He envisioned a cooperative arrangement where small companies would buy stock, form a company, and buy property. Extra space could be rented out to other businesses.

"I wanted to get away from the plantation mentality--a feeling that...we as African-Americans have to move into buildings owned by [non-African-Americans]," Harris says in an interview. "My concept was, let's do for ourselves."

Harris rounded up friends to buy an office building at 7010 American Way in South Oak Cliff. Because there were six investors, they dubbed their new group Unique VI Corporation. But the group was unable to raise the full $160,000 needed to buy the building.

Enter Solomon. Harris was introduced to Solomon through Darren Reagan, whose father is the pastor at Solomon's church, Eastgate Baptist. Reagan told Harris that Solomon was a financial consultant and a Quest for Success award winner who could find them the money.

Harris met Solomon and found him to be a very pleasant, affable man. "He was very soft-spoken--a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word," Harris recalls.

So Harris asked Solomon to help raise the last $60,000 Unique VI needed to buy the building. Solomon agreed, Harris says, but in return Solomon wanted to be majority shareholder and wanted his company to get a contract managing the building and doing Unique VI's books. Harris and the others agreed.

"It didn't strike us as odd at the time," Harris says. "We felt this guy came with the highest recommendations and was a Quest for Success awardee. I had no reason to feel that the fellow was questionable."

Solomon helped secure a loan from Bank One, and Unique VI bought the building. Then, Harris says, everything changed.

Harris says that during one of the first meetings of the newly constituted group, he brought out an architectural rendering of improvements for the building. As he explained his idea, Solomon cut him off. "We don't need any of that," Solomon said.

"How can you tell us what we need?" Harris asked.
"Because I'm majority shareholder," Harris recalls Solomon saying.
Harris says that Solomon made it very clear that the one-share majority Solomon held gave him the power to do "anything he wanted." And, Harris says, Solomon did, starting with getting rid of Harris.

"The first meeting we had with him, he told them, 'You don't need Dr. Harris anymore. I can make you all rich,'" Harris recalls. "And they voted me out."

Harris wasn't going to go without a fight, and in 1992, he and two other Unique VI members filed suit against Solomon, trying to get back the stock they issued Solomon, along with the company's financial records. The suit claimed that Solomon removed Harris as the registered agent for Unique VI illegally.

Harris also objected to Solomon's management of the building. Harris claims Solomon forced out tenants he didn't like, and got rid of one tenant so Solomon could install a business of his own in the office space.

As had happened earlier with the barber college, Solomon and his partners in Unique VI soon wound up in court, suing each other over the deterioration of their business relationship. Ultimately, Unique VI received a $30,000 claim against Solomon's assets in his bankruptcy.

Solomon filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in 1994, listing $300,000 in assets and more than $450,000 in liabilities with the court. But even the bankruptcy has taken on a complicated life of its own.

Although Solomon has tried twice to reorganize under Chapter 11, he has been forced into Chapter 7 dissolution after failing to abide by his reorganization plan. A trustee, Robert Milbank, was appointed to dissolve Solomon's assets.

Solomon, according to court documents, was accused of not living up to his reorganization plan. Milbank claimed that Solomon failed to put up $50,000 he had promised to make the reorganization plan work.

It seems as if Milbank couldn't do anything to please Solomon. Court documents show a laundry list of complaints Solomon had against the trustee. Solomon didn't think Milbank got enough money for some assets, and didn't like the fact that Milbank wasn't sitting in on board meetings for Unique VI or Graham Barber College to make sure Solomon's interests were protected. Solomon certainly didn't like Milbank's efforts to force the case into dissolution. So, Solomon sued Milbank. Although Solomon lost the case, he is awaiting word on his appeal.

In the meantime, Milbank has been busy trying to liquidate Solomon's remaining assets and pay some of the bills. There are only two large assets remaining: the stock in the Unique VI company, and 156 acres on Camp Wisdom Road. Milbank says it could be anywhere from six months to a year before the case is finally resolved.

Solomon continues to challenge the decisions against him in court. Some of those who once did business with Solomon are left with bitter memories. None of the principals from Graham Barber College would talk about Solomon, declining via a certified letter. The Unique VI building is on the sales block. Harris, whose dream of a black-owned office building ran afoul of Solomon's ambition, hasn't been back in the building since he packed up his graphic design things and went home in 1992.

"To this day, it is painful for me to go by that building," Harris says. "The plantation mentality took over."

Blaine Jon Howard contributed to this report.

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