Frontlines

The strange case of John Meier, Canadian

Mark Budgen December 3 1979
Frontlines

The strange case of John Meier, Canadian

Mark Budgen December 3 1979

The strange case of John Meier, Canadian

Frontlines

Mark Budgen

Vancouver has become known as the new Casablanca, a haven for con artists, terrorists, gunrunners, drug smugglers, jewel thieves and other underworldly characters from around the world. In the past three years alone, Vancouverites have learned that their balmy climate has attracted two suspected IRA members, the Hong Kong expolice chiefs (known as the Five Dragons) who were accused of profiting from the heroin trade, and several other less-publicized but equally seamy figures.

But whereas most of them arrived quietly and stayed close to the ground, one remarkable American, John Meier, revelled in publicity. While under investigation by U.S. tax and law enforcement officials, Meier managed to get permission to stay in Vancouver in 1972, became a full-fledged immigrant and permanent resident in 1974 and, in a move that now almost defies credibility, gained Canadian citizenship in 1977. Even so, the long arm of American justice caught up with him this year. He

was extradited to Utah in May and, in August, sentenced to 30 months in jail for obstruction of justice. All of which has left many Vancouverites wondering a) who is this smooth-talking character who lived among them for seven years? and b) how did he manage to get himself Canadian citizenship? He will, it is presumed, be back once his sentence is served.

Meier’s life in Canada so far has been full of grandiloquent public statements. Some of his tales were sufficiently convincing to attract the support of three MPs, Tory John Reynolds and NDPers Tommy Douglas and Andy Brewin, in his bids to enter Canada as an immigrant. Their lobbying efforts on his behalf in 1974, with the then-minister of immigration Robert Andras, were eventually successful. But their advocacy had been set up by Meier’s carefully cultivated image, which suggested he was a model citizen—a successful businessman, an intimate of Howard Hughes, a leading environmentalist, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, the recipient of several honorary awards—who was being hounded by over-zealous American authorities. In fact, though, Maclean's is convinced, after an extensive investigation, that Meier was often dealing creatively and cavalierly with the truth.

For most of his business career from the early ’50s to the mid-’60s, Meier was in loweror middle-management positions. A research organization that he set up, the Nevada Environmental Foundation, failed to pay its bills. Despite claims to the contrary, it is likely he never even spoke to the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. His political career was a dismal failure (he came 10th in a Democratic primary in New Mexico). He has turned out to be a consummate trickster who persuaded politicians and businessmen to do what was good—and profitable—for John Meier.

He was savvy enough to hide his shady business dealings behind offshore corporate aliases and front figures, in money havens such as Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Bahamas.

All of which makes it next-to-impossible to uncover his financial affairs completely, although both police and private investigators have tried hard to do so over the past 10 years. And uncovering details of his daily activities is also difficult since those who are his chief accusers in the U.S. are often persons who themselves also have something to hide and are not prepared to reveal the truth. Such a situation existed particularly in the Hughes organization where secrecy pervaded the whole conglomerate and the infighting among the

power-hungry factions makes a Byzantine court look like a boardroom of one.

Born in 1933 and raised in Long Island City, New York, Meier picked up his only academic qualification 18 years later—a high-school certificate. After stints in life insurance and the armed forces, he joined the Hughes organization in Los Angeles in 1959, in a clerical position. Then, in a series of events that showed the first glimpse of Meier’s con artistry, he was recommended to Robert Maheu, who was establishing Hughes’s gambling empire in Las Vegas. “He was highly recommended as a bright, intelligent guy with two PhDs— something of a genius. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized that that was all baloney, although I remember often wondering why such a welleducated guy spoke with such appalling grammar,” Maheu recently told Maclean ’s.

Meier was quick to take advantage of his spurious reputation. He became Hughes’s scientific adviser, primarily in charge of the billionaire’s campaign against atomic testing in Nevada. The confidence he inspired in that position must have been strong, for he was later given the job of buying goldand silvermining claims for Hughes. The Hughes empire has since charged that through a series of complicated financial manoeuvres he channelled some $8 million into his own coffers—a move that was publicized when Hughes began a civil suit against him in 1972. Meier was also charged with tax evasion and fraud in connection with the same affair.

After his abortive 1972 political career in New Mexico (when he failed miserably to get the Democratic nomination for the state’s U.S. Senate seat), Meier fled to Vancouver, the Internal Revenue Service too interested in him for his comfort.

Meier’s 1972 application to become a landed immigrant was held up while inquiries were made about the charges he was facing in the United States. It turned out that Canadian immigration authorities had passed on copies of Meier’s application to U.S. authorities—a breach of confidence that the immigration minister, Andras, defended on the grounds that confidential exchanges of information between governments were essential for Canadian security. Meier enlisted the aid of Reynolds, the Tory member for BurnabyRichmond-Delta, and NDPers Douglas and Brewin. Andras’ recollection now is that it was the intervention of Douglas and Brewin that determined he would allow Meier to stay. “At that time, the Watergate era, there was considerable evidence that the 1RS was being used to

persecute political enemies. And Meier represented himself to us as one of those political enemies.” Since that time, Meier has left a trail of dubious accomplishments:

• On Aug. 9,1973, he was arrested in Point Roberts, a U.S. enclave south of Vancouver, on tax evasion and fraud charges. Freed on $100,000 bail (subsequently raised to $500,000), he has never appeared for trial on these charges.

• In 1975, Meier released an affidav-

it, allegedly written by an ex-CIA agent named as Virgino Gonzalez, which stated that the CIA had followed Meier from 1971 to 1974 in the U.S., Canada and Europe. This prompted Reynolds to ask questions in Parliament about CIA activities in Canada. Gonzalez has never been found despite exhaustive FBI and RCMP inquiries and possibly does not exist.

• Also in 1975, Meier started working for the Co-ordinated Law Enforcement

Unit, an agency set up by the B.C. government to investigate organized crime, despite his singular lack of experience in the field. He worked there for three years. OLEU officials are now tightlipped concerning their hiring of someone who had skipped bail on criminal charges.

• In 1976, Meier obtained 4,000 documents which had been left behind in Mexico after Hughes died, detailing the billionaire’s personal and business activities. The documents, later entered into evidence in a Salt Lake City court, were found to have been forged. It was over those documents that Meier was convicted of obstruction of justice last August.

• In September, 1977, Meier received his Canadian citizenship, which surprised some RCMP officers who were, by that time, investigating Meier’s activities closely. It was a case of one branch of government failing to consult another.

• After receiving his new passport, Meier embarked on his most elaborate scheme to date—founding a bank in the South Seas kingdom of Tonga. Amid much publicity and fanfare, it was announced that Meier’s Bank of the South Pacific would boost the coconut kingdom into the 20th century with new development. The bank, however, is now almost defunct.

In May, 1978, a Salt Lake City grand jury issued a warrant for Meier’s arrest for obstruction of justice because of the forged documents entered into evidence in his civil suit with the Hughes organization. During the lengthy extradition process, Meier tried to make a deal with the FBI, which sent three agents from its Los Angeles office to interview him in Vancouver, without prior permission from Ottawa. A minor diplomatic row ensued and one of the FBI agents involved has now resigned. Although Meier appealed the extradition all the way to the Supreme Court in Ottawa, he was eventually handed over to U.S. authorities, tried and jailed.