Bollywood Producer Chases His Dream, Scams His Community
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
It's time now to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine - which we do just about every week, to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, we found one about fraud, greed, and the abuse of ethnic ties. And no, we are not talking about Bernie Madoff.
Actually, we're about the man some call the Indian Bernie Madoff. His name is Vijay Taneja and just a short time ago, he was a loved and respected figure in the Indian-American community, in Northern Virginia. He owned a large mortgage firm, built himself a luxurious mansion, was active in his temple and the community and was determined to bring Indian cinema - you know, Bollywood - to the United States.
But Taneja is no longer regarded as a visionary. He's actually called a crook who masterminded one of Virginia's biggest mortgage frauds ever. And in fact, he's now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
Annie Gowan wrote about the rise and fall of Vijay Taneja in this week's Washington Post Magazine, and she's with us now in our D.C. studio.
Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Ms. ANNIE GOWAN (Journalist, Washington Post): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So Vijay Taneja moved to the U.S. as a teen with his father, who was an Indian diplomat. How did he become so wealthy?
Ms. GOWAN: Well, it was really not necessarily quickly. His career started in about 1990. He formed a mortgage company in Northern Virginia, and he began helping some of those other fellow Indian immigrants buy their first homes. The enterprise eventually brought in about $700 million.
MARTIN: Now, you were not able to speak with him or his wife about this story. As we mentioned, he's in prison now. But before the scandal broke, he gave an interview to local media and talked about starting his mortgage company.
Here's a clip from 2007. Just want to play it for you.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Mr. VIJAY TANEJA (Businessman): Well, as you know, when I opened the mortgage business I was told, why are you opening a mortgage business - back in 1990, when everything is going down the drain?
Unidentified Man: Uh-huh.
Mr. TANEJA: And I'm a really optimistic type of thinker. Whatever goes down has to come up. Whatever goes up has to come down. So I'm predicting a year or two from now, we're going to have robust real estate market once again.
MARTIN: When were you able to figure out about how things unraveled? Did the trial suggest that in fact, this was a fraud from the beginning? Or was it one of those things where he started out doing things honestly and then when things went south, he started robbing Peter to pay Paul?
Ms. GOWAN: Most of the FBI agents and other law enforcement officials that investigated the case think that he was sort of undone by his own ambition, because he was sort of a man who had ambitions beyond his mortgage company. He wanted to be a famous Bollywood producer. That was his life's dream.
When he launched his company, called Elite Entertainment, which brought Bollywood stars here for musical revues, he began using his mortgage company to fund these shows, which were extremely expensive to produce. And the stars required limousines and flowers, and then later on...
MARTIN: Well, whether they required them or not, he felt that they should have them.
Ms. GOWAN: Well, exactly. He wanted to...
MARTIN: It was kind of his thing. He wanted to do it up big.
Ms. GOWAN: That's right. He wanted to treat the stars in - to a way that they were accustomed, and he liked hobnobbing with them, rubbing elbows. And then he decided that he wanted to have a career as an actual Bollywood filmmaker. And that's when, really, he started using the mortgage business to fund - illegally fund those activities.
MARTIN: You write about the fact that he actually financed a Bollywood film that premiered in the United States.
Ms. GOWAN: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: How was the film? What was that like?
Ms. GOWAN: Well, he started by doing these glamorous revues. And then he met this young pop singer named Himesh Reshammiya who's - I kind of think of him as the Ricky Martin of India. So he decided that he was going to make a movie with this performer. He poured millions of dollars into this project, and it was not the gold mine that he had hoped for.
MARTIN: What was the premiere like?
Ms. GOWAN: The premiere...
MARTIN: Was it fabulous?
Ms. GOWAN: No, it was actually fairly low-key. It was held in a little cinema out in Falls Church, Virginia, which is the center of the Indian-American community here, and he was very proud of it. And it was the American premiere of a major mainstream Bollywood film - and that was kind of unusual.
MARTIN: But you also mentioned that the film wasnt very good.
Ms. GOWAN: Well, you know, this is from the critics. The Bollywood critics sort of said that Mr. Reshammiya's acting was wooden, and he was more of a singer, actually, than an actor. So it was like as if one of our singers - you know, like Ricky Martin, as I said - tried be an actor. It was that kind of a problem with the acting. So it was not the success that he had dreamt of.
MARTIN: Well, it's kind of a metaphor, isn't it? That his vision, or whatever it is he thought was there, wasnt really there.
Ms. GOWAN: Right. I mean, his whole life, in respect, was that way because he had these delusions of grandeur, and it was all in stolen money. I mean, now they think he's stolen up to $150 million.
MARTIN: A hundred and fifty million dollars.
Ms. GOWAN: Yes. So it's the largest solo bank fraud ever in the history of the Eastern District of Virginia, and one of the largest ever in the country.
MARTIN: Right now, we're just talking about big picture and numbers and things like that. But on actual human beings, this had a tremendous impact.
Ms. GOWAN: Right. Well, the fraud was extremely complicated, and the civil part of it is going to take years to unravel. But it's really easy for people to understand how he tricked some of his customers - which is that they sat at the table when they were signing their loan documents, and he had them sign several different sets of loan documents. And he would then take the phony, other loans that they had unwittingly signed, and get money from those mortgages for himself. And he actually avoided arousing suspicion by keeping the payments on those current.
But at a certain point, he was robbing Peter to pay Paul. And the credit dried up, and so he couldnt do the shuffling that he'd been doing. And so these victims, many of whom were friends of his in the local Indian community, started getting multiple notices in their mailboxes from different mortgage companies that they didnt even know they had mortgages with.
MARTIN: Needless to say, his own mansion and its contents were auctioned off to pay some restitution for what he did, although it couldn't possibly cover the whole amount. Just describe a little bit about what it was like, would you?
Ms. GOWAN: I actually covered the auction of this house, which is out in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in kind of a modest neighborhood. But he had torn down an existing home and built this really - like, there's no other word for it, a palace. And he spent $6 or $7 million building it. And it had an indoor swimming pool with a retractable roof and a squash court, and a movie theater and a dance floor. And it was just quite amazing. And so we went to the auction, and we just really felt that he was kind of a symbol, an icon of the housing bust.
MARTIN: And there's also the ethnic piece of it, too, the fact that many of the people whom he defrauded were of his background - who trusted him in part, one assumes, because they were of the same background, they belonged to the same social circle -which is, of course, the same issue with Bernie Madoff.
There was a lot of ethnic shame, feeling attached to the Bernie Madoff scandal. And I wanted to know, was the same thing here true? Were there people who said: How could one of us do this to one of us?
Ms. GOWAN: Yeah. I mean, when we started interviewing the victims, most of them - or all of them, I should say, did not want their names used, because they were so deeply ashamed A, of having been hoodwinked by this person and B, by the fact that he was a prominent and loved member of their community, and he had committed this fraud against the members of his own community.
MARTIN: Annie Gowan is a reporter for the Washington Post, where she covers wealth, class and income. Her piece is titled "Bollywood Mirage," and she wrote about it in this week's Washington Post Magazine.
If you want to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll have a link on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.
Annie, thanks for speaking with us.
Ms. GOWAN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.