Billy Zane, the Hollywood actor best known as Rose’s villainous fiance in “Titanic,” was the celebrity pitchman for a venture capital firm that specializes in flashy global networking events.
It’s the same company that taxpayers paid $2.4 million for ventilators and protective garb this year as the firm set its sights on the global coronavirus pandemic. And the U.S. government appears to have grossly overpaid for it.
But trying to track down information about the company and its product exposes the tangled web the government has created for itself by relying on a growing number of middlemen, brokers and newcomers to secure emergency supplies.
Parkpine Inc. is a Delaware company registered to a single-family home in Los Angeles, with a mailing address at an apartment in Chinatown, and tied to a business with “offices” in Silicon Valley and Hollywood that really are just UPS Store mailboxes.
Founder and managing partner Ahmed Shabana is the government’s official “point of contact” and the registered agent for Parkpine. It operates the website Instapill, hawking a variety of vitamins, libido pills, and now masks, wipes and hand sanitizer. This spring, for $35 – $2.33 a pill – it also offered a “Corona Virus Preventive & Immune Boosting” pill called Coronax.
And Billy Zane? He’s now distancing himself from Parkpine and Shabana, noting through a representative that despite marketing appearances together over the past few years, he has never actually invested his own money, been paid as an employee or solicited investments on behalf of Parkpine.
That’s a departure from the statements Zane made last year on a publicity blitz alongside Shabana under the Parkpine banner, with stops in Greece, Luxembourg and Egypt.
In one video interview, with Cairo Scene, Zane sits at the lavish Four Seasons Hotel Cairo next to Shabana – an Egyptian native – and presents himself as having a more active role in the venture: “What’s exciting and where I think we really differentiate is we’ve placed $25 million across nine companies,” he said.
Shabana declined to answer questions for this report in a series of phone calls and messages, at one point saying he is living overseas. In the past, he has been accused by both business associates and the winner of a pitch competition of not delivering on his promises.
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With a hard-to-determine backstory on Parkpine, perhaps what matters most is: Did the government get what it paid for? It’s not entirely clear, but the government says it did.
Federal records show the Department of Justice and officers at the Bureau of Prisons issued a noncompetitive award on April 16 for $1.04 million for 60 ventilators, about $17,000 apiece. It also ordered $1.3 million in protective coveralls three days later.
The coveralls arrived and Parkpine delivered all 60 ventilators, too, but its hard to tell whether the machines were the same ones offered. Records from the Bureau of Prisons say the company was paid for “Instapill” branded “Invasive INBREATH 300” ventilators.
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Ventilators are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has issued emergency authorization for dozens of new and emerging companies to provide the specialized breathing machines.
However, no FDA record exists for Parkpine, Instapill or the INBREATH 300.
Asked about the company’s dearth of health care experience, the prisons bureau was unconcerned.
“In regard to contract awards, the federal government encourages and promotes small business and does not have an exclusion on new businesses,” wrote prisons system spokesman Justin Long. “If a vendor is registered in the System for Award Management, can meet the specifications, and is competitive in price, they are eligible for an award.”
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After USA TODAY pressed for answers from the prison system, Long said the ventilators are actually Philips-manufactured model Resperonics E30s. The FDA confirmed the small machines are approved under this year’s emergency use authorization to deal with the critical shortage in the lifesaving equipment.
Philips E30s are manufactured in Pennsylvania and are newly approved for COVID-19 patients. But Edgardo Bautista, a reseller at Inland Biomedical Services in Los Angeles, says the units wholesale for about $4,000 and the government has cut deals for closer to $2,500 per unit.
“So $17,000 is a pretty huge margin,” Bautista said. “Your ethics have to stretch to make $15,000 on something.”
So far, none of the ventilators have been used on any inmates in the federal system, Long said.
Silvie Casanova, spokeswoman for Philips, said the company never sold any E30 ventilators to Parkpine or Instapill and is unaware of any efforts by other companies to relabel or rebrand its equipment.
“We originally introduced our E30 as a readily available ventilation alternative during the COVID-19 crisis in situations where full-featured, critical-care ventilators are not available,” Casanova said. “Any company rebranding them or positioning them differently, does so without our knowledge or support.”
Philips is the most-awarded federal coronavirus vendor with contracts worth $664 million of the $19 billion spent on emergency supplies and services.
Travels with the ‘Hungry Entrepreneur’
More than two dozen attempts to contact Shabana resulted in one brief conversation before he hung up.
“I never sold those pills, and they weren’t ever advertised, and Billy (Zane) wasn’t involved in the government deals,” Shabana said. “It’s not a good time for me to talk.”
Shabana received his master of business administration degree from the University of Southern California in 2016 and for a time advertised himself as someone who “helps build startups and advise entrepreneurs on funding, lifestyle, and food” under the brand “The Hungry Entrepreneur.”
That phrase remains his Instagram handle: @thehungryentrepreneur, which still features abundant photos of Shabana with food, including a red latte around Christmastime in Lisbon and a Po’Boy and pancakes in Vegas in January.
Shabana claims to have created the Middle East’s first online pharmacy, Agzakhana.com, which generates “millions.” The website address is now defunct.
He boasts on social media about a 2017 piece in Forbes Middle East reporting that Parkpine was “preparing to close a $150 million venture capital fund.”
Shabana claims in the Forbes piece to have partnered with Zane and film producer and real estate investor Elie Samaha. As of July, Zane has been removed from the Parkpine website as a partner. An attorney for Samaha did not respond to questions about his role.
Zane has headlined Shabana’s events-business confabs called the “Global Ventures Summit” that travel to hotels around the globe to drum up venture capital prospects. He traveled with Shabana to Greece and Egypt last year to promote the business and accept an award at the the Cairo International Film Festival. “Touchdown #cairo #egypt with @thehungryentrepreneur,” Zane posted on Instagram. Zane also posted photos of himself touring the ancient pyramids in Egypt with Shabana.
He spoke at a Parkpine-sponsored event in Luxembourg in front of a projected screen with his name, and, underneath it, “Parkpine.”
At times, Zane has been opaque about his role with Parkpine. In 2018, he appeared alongside Shabana, who called him his partner, for an hour-long special on CNN Indonesia, and said: “Celebrity is a very curious currency. It’s access. Heads of state and titans of industry all love movies, or their children love a particular film, and I can utilize that currency.”
Other times he has been more specific: “I am grateful to make my point of entry here with my dear friend and business partner, Ahmed Shabana, who’s an Egyptian national and American citizen,” Zane told eniGma Magazine in Egypt last November. “(Shabana) started a company, called Global Venture Summit, which I later joined as a partner.”
Zane plays a similar pitchman role as a consultant to entrepreneurs with the California Institute of Technology as the manager of the “Convergence Lab” incubator.
The actor, who has become an “abstract expressionist” painter, typically appeared at the Parkpine events in his signature newsboy cap, chunky glasses and scarves. Zane, 54, has appeared in the “Back to the Future” franchise, “Tombstone,” “The Phantom” and, more recently, television spots in NBC’s “Community.”
The Chicago native shared the bill with musicians Common and Jeff Tweedy along with others to raise $1.2 million for coronavirus relief during a telethon in May.
Zane replied to queries from USA TODAY through his film representative, who helped pass along a statement as the actor was in the midst of arranging a funeral in Chicago for his father, who died after contracting the coronavirus.
The representative, who asked not to be named, said that despite Zane’s own past statements about Parkpine, an actual partnership failed to take off.
“Mr. Zane was approached to partner with Mr. Shabana and his company, Parkpine Capital, whose portfolio includes Global Ventures Summit. While he awaited delivery of basic corporate documents to review, he touted Parkpine’s interests in good faith,” the representative wrote in an email. “However, Mr. Shabana repeatedly failed to produce any documentation.”
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Company tour raises questions in Greece
During the publicity tour in November, the pair posed on the tarmac and inside the cabin of a six-seat Learjet. Another image shows them in the office of Greece’s investment minister, Adonis Georgiadis. Shabana and Zane flank the official, smiling.
“Inspiring vision and leadership,” Zane notes in his post, which includes the hashtags #development and #finance.
Πριν λίγο στο γραφείο μου συνάντησα από το Λος Άντζελες τους εκπροσώπους της @ParkpineCapital μεταξύ των οποίων και ο δικός μας @BillyZane για να διοργανώσουμε πολλά ωραία πράγματα εδώ. pic.twitter.com/6K5xZugw0G
— Άδωνις Γεωργιάδης (@AdonisGeorgiadi) November 25, 2019
A day after USA TODAY contacted other people pictured in Zane’s photos, the images were taken down from Instagram, but a similar photo from the Twitter account of Georgiadis remained.
The trip drew the attention of Nikos Spyropoulos, an investigative reporter based in Athens at the news outlet Documento, who raised questions about the nature of the visit and photo op.
Spyropoulos published a story pointing out Shabana’s apparent lack of experience or establishment of a business entity. Government officials denied signing any economic agreements with Parkpine but said they were interested in hosting the Global Ventures Summit in the future.
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This spring, as the coronavirus spread around the globe, one of Parkpine’s businesses, Instapill, began advertising a new addition to its lineup of pills: Coronax. For $35, anyone could buy the bottle of 15 “Corona Virus Preventive & Immune Boosting Pills,” according to preserved versions of the Instapill website operated by Shabana.
Although Shabana told USA TODAY that he never marketed or sold the pills – and that Zane was not involved with them either – Spyropoulos interviewed Greek residents who said they received direct-marketing emails from Instapill touting the pills.
The FDA has cracked down on supplement and vitamin providers advertising coronavirus remedies because no FDA-approved products currently exist. The FDA does not list Coronax on its warning list, and there’s no evidence the pills were sold in the U.S. – or at all.
The Coronax pills are no longer advertised on the Instapill website.
Events business draws complaints
Parkpine’s most visible presence has been the Global Ventures Summit, with events hosted in Los Angeles; Jakarta, Indonesia; Mexico City; and most recently Luxembourg.
The tiny European country played host to an event that almost imploded days before it was scheduled because of Shabana’s disorganization, according to Nasir Zubairi, head of the LHoFT Foundation, which co-organized the summit.
“I think the easiest way to say it was it didn’t match the expectations we set,” Zubairi said.
One of those expectations: Snoop Dogg.
Calvin Broadus, the American rapper-turned-entrepreneur and venture capitalist, was supposed to be among the celebrity investors intended to attract attendees, according to Zubairi. He did not appear. Neither Broadus nor his investment company responded to a request for comment.
“If not for my team being all hands on deck it might not have worked out,” Zubairi said. “(Shabana) is a likable person, has all the experience and contacts on paper, but in terms of delivery and execution he doesn’t live up to the standards.”
Trey Brown had another sour experience with the Global Ventures Summit in Los Angeles. In 2017 he paid $150 to attend, participating in the pitch competition that had a grand prize of $50,000 cash for his company which sold branded and celebrity-based emojis for messaging apps.
Weeks passed, then months. Brown felt certain he was never going to see the cash prize and fired off a series of emails to Shabana. Those emails, reviewed by USA TODAY, show Shabana delaying and eventually offering “credits” instead of cash.
Brown felt strongly enough that he attended another Global Ventures Summit event in L.A. and confronted Shabana while a friend filmed the exchange. The video is posted on YouTube.
“Security! Guys, please. Get out, please leave,” Shabana said, trying to quiet Brown’s shouted interruptions of “Where’s my check from last year?”
Brown compared the 2017 event to a music festival-that-wasn’t in the Bahamas promoted by social media influencers and celebrities, including rapper Ja Rule.
“I still have my giant check, and now I have this video, so hopefully he stops doing this – he shouldn’t get away with it,” Brown said of Shabana. “I felt like this was Fyre Fest and he was Ja Rule. It was unbelievable.”
The Global Ventures Summit, hosted by Shabana, is scheduled to visit Miami in December.
Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on firearms and consumer financial protection. Contact him at [email protected] or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Government COVID-19 contracts go to mysterious firm tied to celebrity