Sunday 18 March 2018

Pat Austin - The peddler of fantasies who made me a writer

Pat Austin was a high-energy American who swept into town 14 years ago, set up a publishing company, among others, and signed my first novel, writes Emily Hourican. So what happened next?

Pat Austin wore expensive suits and was a hit on Dublin's social scene.
Pat Austin wore expensive suits and was a hit on Dublin's social scene.

My first novel has recently been released. And like most writers, this isn't the first novel I have written, but, probably unlike most writers, it isn't my first publishing deal either. Back in 2005, I was signed by a new Irish publishing company, Blackrock Publishing. I had recently had my first baby, was editing The Dubliner magazine full-time, and really hadn't been expecting my dreams to suddenly come true. In fact, I hadn't even sent the novel off. Because I didn't have a novel, I only had a couple of chapters. The publishing company came looking for me, and wouldn't take no for an answer. Even at the time, it seemed far too good to be true. Later, when it all came apart at the seams, that was probably my only consolation - telling myself "it was fantasy stuff . . ."

So who was the author of this fantasy? And how did the same person end up, eight-odd years later, with a judgement against him for $6,566,179.14 (that's basically six-and-a-half million dollars) made in a New York court? Enter Pat Austin. The man with a thousand faces.

What follows are my recollections of Pat. I am sure they differ greatly to those of others who knew him. Like a conjuring trick or Chinese whispers, we will each have seen a slightly different person and responded to a different set of psychological prompts. For me, the Pat Austin story starts one Friday in early 2002, in the offices of The Dubliner, with a man on the phone, an American, who won't take no for an answer.

He is the new director of communications for wine and spirit company Woodford Bourne, and he wants to have lunch with me. I don't have time. I am trying to put him off. Not possible. Persistent beyond the usual run of people, in the end I agree. We meet in The Mermaid and immediately it is apparent Pat Austin is not the usual run of people. He's a big guy, dressed in an aggressively well-cut suit, with a big gold watch and the voice is purest New York.

His energy is the most noticeable thing about him. There is a lot of it. He makes jokes, asks questions, personal and professional, and drops hints about his previous life. Well, not so much hints as whole nuggets.

Irish mother, Italian father, military school, a Secret Service background, active service in the Gulf War and the former Yugoslavia are all revealed, as is what sounds like a stellar career as an investment banker. The whiff of what feels like access to the big, bad world is exciting. He seems remarkably open - this must be the New York way? - and direct. And complimentary: 'You know what, you're a pistol,' he tells me repeatedly. At least, I'm presuming it's a compliment from the way he says it. I like him, he's good fun.

"So what do you want?" he asks, and by the end of lunch he has agreed to sponsor The Dubliner 100 Best Restaurants book, to the tune of ¤10,000 if I remember rightly. Within a couple of weeks, Pat Austin is everywhere. He is the new guy in town, making a big splash. On his watch, Woodford Bourne becomes sponsor of the Cork Midsummer Festival, and of a photography exhibition called Here Is New York. He is nominated for a National Sales and Marketing Award, is named Decision magazine's Marketing Executive of the Year and gives interviews left, right and centre. In every interview, his military and Secret Service background are revealed; in one, asked for his favourite TV programme, he says "24 - reminds me of when I used to work for the Secret Service."

In a later interview with the late model Katy French, originally published in Social & Personal, his trajectory is described thus: "Pat graduated from the military and went on to university where he completed a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, becoming an officer before being commissioned a lieutenant in the US Army Intelligence. He trained for and was awarded certificates in the Special Forces Airborne division before going to work for other government agencies, namely the United States Secret Service."

Pat himself is quoted as saying "I don't get ruffled easily". His openness extends to his personal life. He is, he tells me, divorced, and the father of two children. The mother of these children is Jessica. Pat lives on Shrewsbury Road, he says. Jessica and the kids live round the corner.

The exact sequence of events that follows is hazy in my mind because I was pregnant with my first child, but at some point Pat left Woodford Bourne. But he stayed in Dublin, and stayed visible. Not a launch party or race meeting seemed complete without him. However, there were whispers that all might not be as it seemed. An item appeared in the social diary of this paper referring to his "Walter Mitty life". Pat believed Trevor White, publisher of The Dubliner, had written it. He was hurt.

So hurt that he turned up at our offices late one weekday evening with a clutch of photographs, to prove his credentials. There was a photo of dots descending with parachutes from a military plane. That, he said, was his arrival into the former Yugoslavia during the war there. Another photo showed Pat smiling, his arms around some other people, in front of the logo for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. There was indeed a photo of Pat in Desert Storm uniform on what might have been a troop ship and might not. There were other photos - vague, inconsequential - that he insisted were proof of his bona fides. It was a curious moment of vulnerability in a man I had only ever seen buoyant and bullish. He was, he said, just back from his father's funeral in New York.

Shortly afterwards, I had a baby, and Pat set up Montaigne Investments, a venture capital company. This, he said when we met again, had always been his intention. The role with Woodford Bourne had apparently only ever been a starting-point, a way to suss out the business landscape in Dublin. His partner in Montaigne was Stephen Keaveney, who also set up the cable TV company Broadworks, and investors included the former Anglo Irish Bank chairman Peter Murray and Airtricity director Louis Fitzgerald. Pat Austin had some credible people with him. There was also a Maltese connection, and apparently offices in Spain, Slovakia and America.

Around this time, Pat rang me for lunch again. Again I didn't want to go - just back at work, with a small baby, I really, really didn't have time.

But Pat was insisting. He'd send a car, he said, it would be worth my while. Montaigne Investments HQ was in Blackrock; some rather low-ceilinged rooms, stuffed with a great deal of very heavy Georgian-style mahogany furniture. Pat's desk, complete with green leather top, was the size of a snooker table. Over lunch, he told me he was setting up a publishing company.

As usual, with Pat, everything was really, apparently, something else. The reason he was setting up the company, he confided, was because he knew that a number of huge American media monsters would shortly be looking for a toehold in the European publishing market and would prefer, for tax reasons, to buy an existing company rather than set one up. Ireland was the perfect place for them to do this. But, in the meantime, advances would be given, books would be published, marketed and - ultimately - exposed to an American market when the take-over happened. Dizzying stuff, certainly to me. Then: "You're a writer," he said. "You must have a novel somewhere."

I did have a bit of a novel, but only a couple of chapters, written in haste, driven by desperation to do something that would give me more time at home with my son. "Send it to me," he said. I did. At the time, I figured I had nothing to lose.

By then he had assembled - in true Pat Austin whirlwind style - a team of highly credible professionals to run the company now known as Blackrock Publishing, including Sine Quinn, who had worked for Veritas, and Carroll Heinemann, who was to be managing editor. The chairman was Michael McCann, a former chairman of the Irish Writers' Centre. The office was to be run by Trudi Rothwell, who I knew vaguely from La Cave wine bar where she had been manager, and from a few friends we had in common. Trudi had been at school with these friends, who remembered her with fondness, but who were very surprised to find that she was now, apparently, director of something very grand called the Rothwell Family Trust charity. I was never able to discover any more about this charity - what it did, who it helped.

But that was far from uppermost in my mind in 2005. Because I sent the chapters to Pat, and he said that Blackrock Publishing would be delighted to sign me as their first author, for an advance of ¤24,000. The deal was done in November - I got the first instalment of the advance, various newspapers carried items giving details of the amount, and of the new company, and I went off to finish the novel. The great delight of those days was working with Sine Quinn, who was skilfully editing chapters as fast as I was writing them. The book was taking shape. Anyway, the book's problems were as nothing compared to what was about to blow up around it.

I went away for Christmas and came back in early January, to find that Bad Things Were Happening. Staff at Blackrock Publishing hadn't been paid, it seemed, since before Christmas. Staff at Montaigne Investments seemed to have the same problem. Locks had been changed without warning and mobile phones disconnected. What was going on? It's nothing, said Pat magnificently, I'm in the middle of conducting a management buy-out, and accounts are frozen. This, he said, was entirely normal procedure. Carry on writing, he said, nothing has changed.

Something, though, clearly had changed. Newspaper reports from the time describe a dispute between Pat Austin and Stephen Keaveney, apparently over the direction Montaigne was taking, but also report the official line - that Austin was engaged in a management buy-out. Whatever the ins and outs of the situation, Montaigne Investments never did seem to emerge from that management buy-out. Neither did Blackrock Publishing survive. The offices were closed, staff left and, thankfully, found other jobs.

I stopped writing my novel about three-quarters of the way through. With no clarity as to who would actually own the book if I did finish it, I couldn't see the point. Pat continued to claim that he was buying the company - emails from him to me throughout 2006 make reference to this - until finally in February 2007 he, describing himself "as the largest investor in Blackrock Publishing Partners, the company that bought Blackrock Publishing," freed me from my "past contractual obligations".

By that time, Pat Austin had left Ireland, amidst rumours of a growing list of creditors. Jessica went with him. So, to the surprise of many, did Trudi Rothwell. Since then, Pat seems to have lived in Malta briefly, then the UK, before returning to the US. He featured frequently on a UK website called (which, among other things, dedicates itself to investigating possible Walts, people who try to fake military careers) between 2007 and 2014, often mentioned by contributors who seem desperate to get news of him after investment opportunities have gone wrong.

He crops up in a New York Supreme Court case, Tierney v Frey, in 2012, in which one Shane Tierney asserts causes of action against one Robert Frey for breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, unjust enrichment and a judgement to create a constructive trust. In his complaint, Tierney alleges that Austin, who is not a party to the action, solicited Tierney to participate in a short-term, high-yield investment being undertaken by Austin and Frey's bank, Corporate Finance Montaigne Ltd. Ultimately, the judge in that case decided that the action could not proceed without joining Austin as a necessary party.

Two years later comes the $6m judgement against Austin and for William J Wilson, Robert J Frey and Bruce B Weiner, with the plaintiffs claiming they were defrauded through various financial schemes. Originally, the defendants in that case were listed as Austin, Paul King, Trudi Rothwell and Jessica Faye Iona Wedderbrun, but King was dismissed from the action with prejudice, and Rothwell and Wederburn dismissed without prejudice, so that the judgement was ultimately awarded against Austin alone.

I haven't heard from Pat since 2007. Before writing this, I emailed him at the only email address I had, and got no response. I tried to call the last number I have for him. A woman answered and said she had never heard of anyone of that name. I tried contacting Trudi Rothwell via Facebook, but got no response.

I suppose I could be angry with him, for pulling me into what seems with hindsight, a disingenuous (at best) scheme, one which raised high hopes in me - my career as a novelist begun! - only to dash them roundly. But actually, I don't. If nothing else, Pat Austin gave me the kick-start I needed to write two-thirds of a novel. In doing so, I discovered how much I love writing fiction and, although it took me another 10 years to complete a novel, it is thanks to that first effort that I felt I knew what I was doing.

And he gave me the money to take some time at home when I badly wanted to. It may not have been his money to give, but it was an entirely legitimate transaction at the time. He also taught me a couple of valuable lessons - golden opportunities do not, usually, land unbidden in one's lap. Good things come to those who work for them, and if it looks too good to be true, chances are it is.

'The Privileged' by Emily Hourican is published by Hachette Ireland, €17.99

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