If you've passed the Exxon station at Maple and Oak Lawn Avenue this month, you've probably spotted the well-dressed man sitting in a lawn chair, wearing a sign around his neck with one simple question and three burning punctuation marks: "Where is our money???" His name is Muhammet Atayev, and his pleading sign is directed at retired Dallas County probate judge Joseph Ashmore Jr. -- now a lawyer in private practice -- and his investment partners Allan Clark and Jack Wilemon, a disbarred former Fort Worth attorney.
Each weekday morning, Atayev leaves his motel room in a dress shirt, dark pants and a diamond-encrusted watch and tramps up Oak Lawn carrying his sign, his lawn chair and a black umbrella. Then he spends the day facing Ashmore's law office from across the street, sipping water and waiting. Most days, he says, Ashmore comes by to reassure him the money's on its way, just to be patient and everything will be fine.
But Atayev says he's heard it all before, one stalling tactic after another since he and two friends invested $250,000 with Ashmore's group three years ago. They were told to expect $25 million back after just four months, but while Ashmore and his partners have been quick with assurances that the investment's doing just fine, that the money's coming soon, Atayev says he hasn't seen a penny from them. From a run-around between various investment groups involved in their deal to a series of short-term excuses, Atayev says he hasn't gotten a straight answer from Ashmore, whose integrity as a former judge helped sell Atayev on the investment in the first place. Their payment was held up one day, his partners were told, because Ashmore got stuck in traffic on the way to the bank.
In late July, Ashmore and Clark sent a letter to Atayev with an agreement to pay them $2.5 million -- one tenth the original return. "Clearly there have been delays," the letter says, "but rest assured we are not the cause of the delay and work 24/7 to expedite the process for all our benefit." (Repeated calls to Clark, Ashmore and Wilemon all went unreturned.)
"I don't care how much they have," Atayev says. "Just give us back our money."
The greatest reason for the delay, though, might be this: While Atayev's the only one camped outside Ashmore's office to demand his money, there are plenty more people from Hollywood to London who claim Ashmore owes them.
An earlier federal suit named Clark as one of the beneficiaries of the "Megafund" Ponzi scheme the SEC uncovered in 2005, while Atayev has since heard about other investors who say Ashmore's stringing them along -- from a group of Mormons in Utah to his investment partner's neighbors in Sacramento.
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The best documented complaint against Ashmore and Clark may be the Hollywood lawsuit Robert covered back in April, the case of one Englishman's $2 million investment in his son's movie Spooked (about a haunted London brewery), which Ashmore and Clark agreed to spin into a $10-million production budget within 90 days.
According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court, while Ashmore and Clark "have never refused to return" the money, or "denied that the $2,000,000 is required to be returned," they simply haven't paid up. After six months waiting, the investors filed a suit that, according to the latest court records, is in mediation right now.
Outside Ashmore's office, Atayev says he and his two partners can't afford a lengthy court battle, and worry that Ashmore's too well-connected in the Dallas legal community to trust any local lawyer they might find.
One of his co-investors, Helen Mitakys tells Unfair Park that eventually, they may indeed sue to recover their money, "But at this point," she says, "we want to ruin their reputation. They deserve it. You don't treat people like that. What are you taking people for, idiots?"