Insider threats are a critical aspect of risk management today, both in the cyber and physical security realms. However, while we often hear about those caught committing some form of fraud or crime, what happens when it is the owner of the company acting fraudulently and making sure none of his staff can catch him?
This is the story of Chris Bentley, the former CEO of Bellatorum Resources, an investment management firm based in Texas, USA, that specialised in Texas oil and gas royalties and mineral rights. Bentley started his company and experienced good growth with positive prospects ahead for a few years, until the market took a dive.
To keep the company going, Bentley started moving funds around to pay the bills and pay off loans; money that investors (many of whom were personal friends of his) expected him to be investing on their behalf. Speaking to Hi-Tech Security Solutions, Bentley explains that his intention wasn’t to defraud or steal from anyone, but simply to get through the bad times and then to repay the money once the market picked up again.
However, on 9 April 2021, he realised things had gone too far and he could no longer keep up the charade. Bentley then wrote what he calls “the hardest email of my life.” The crux of the email, which was addressed to clients, employees and partners, was to tell them he had committed fraud and squandered nearly $40 million.
What makes Bentley’s story different is that his own conscience caught him; until that email went out, nobody knew what he was doing.
Since then, Bentley has come clean with everyone, including the US authorities, and he is set on paying for his crimes while also working to make things right with all the people he hurt. Part of his self-described “rehabilitation” was writing a book describing how his fall came about. The book, ‘Burning Bellatorum: The Story of a Forty Million Dollar Fraud and its Priceless Lessons for Investors and Entrepreneurs’, is available on Amazon).
Why the book?
“After experiencing about three and a half years of massive success and growth at Bellatorum, things started to go downhill,” he explains. “We had some internal operational hiccups that affected our ability to generate revenue, and then the oil and gas industry hit a downturn. In early 2019, I started lying to investors and committing fraud to survive and to cover our various investment and operational overheads. Eventually everything spiralled out of control, and I turned myself into the feds when my conscience got the better of me.”
According to Bentley, the 183-page book provides a detailed and “brutally honest blow-by-blow account” of how he committed fraud. It provides invaluable lessons for those entrusted with financial management and investment, and reminds them of their core fiduciary responsibilities. It also aims to advise readers on how to preserve their wealth, efficiently scale their businesses, identify management irregularities and prevent fraud.
Bentley also lost all his own assets during the fraud by leveraging his house, cars and personal investments to keep the company afloat. Bellatorum Resources ceased operations on 9 April 2021.
“I am deeply remorseful for what I have done, and my objective in writing the book was threefold. First, I wanted to send a harsh warning to anyone contemplating doing what I did and tell them that it is just not worth it. I know that it is very easy to go down the wrong path with good intentions and I want to prevent people from making the same mistakes that I made. Second, I want to protect investors from falling victim to the activities that I implemented. Finally, I wanted to try and find a way to pay back investors. They have lost so much and I want to make things right.
“All post-tax proceeds generated from the sale of the book will be turned over to either federal authorities or investor trustees once court-ordered restitution details have been provided, so those investors impacted by the fraud can be compensated for their loss,” he states.
When asked how he did it, Bentley says he initially felt he could make it all right if he just landed one good deal – which never came. To keep his activities hidden, Bentley doctored the company’s financials and created fraudulent documentation in support of it. Moreover, he created siloes in the company to ensure he was the only one who knew what was going on, making sure no-one else had a full overview of the real state of the company "I didn’t let them have access to information. That's why they didn’t end up working for me for long," he said to Reuters).
Bentley ended up working all hours as the sole decision-maker in the company, as well as the only person who was able to interact with external people and companies. Apart from being extremely stressful, he created a house of cards and all that was needed was for one card to fall to see it all come crashing down. That card proved to be his own conscience.
Bentley’s advice to investors in any type of organisation is to make sure they do their homework before committing their money. In the case of Bellatorum, it was a small network of investors, all of whom knew Bentley, with many being personal friends. The investment was made on trust, which in the early years was rewarded.
To secure themselves, investors need to ensure that any organisation they invest in has the right systems and reporting mechanisms in place. Everyone, including the CEO, must have a reporting line (to a board in the case of the CEO) and there must be technical processes in place to ensure that documents can’t be altered or created out of thin air. Checks and balances are critical.
In case of emergency
Moreover, while companies need strict process controls in place (although not so strict as to prevent people from making money), they also need a process to fail safely. While failure is not and should never be encouraged, there needs to be some mechanism that when someone (be it the CEO or someone lower down the ranks) realises they are at a dead end, they have a way out; a way to fail safely to avoid them choosing the route of fraud in the hope that ‘one big deal’ will set things right and enable them to pay everyone back.
One of the primary reasons for Bellatorum’s fall is that the company took on debt which it couldn’t repay when the loan was called in. It’s possible that reporting structures or a board of directors would have advised against the loan in the first place, or insisted on a smaller loan. Whatever the case, a reporting process might have avoided the unfortunate result.
Having a failsafe as a standard company process is also advised. The old adages of ‘failure is not an option’ and ‘never give up’, which were definitely part of Bentley’s mindset after spending 14 years as a US Marine, should be tempered in the business world. When certain criteria are met, each member of staff should know to ‘break the glass’ and declare an emergency before things get out of control. This may not only prevent any fraudulent activity, but it could bring other people to the table who might be able to work out a ‘soft landing’.
Having lost everything and still waiting for the authorities to bring formal charges against him, Bentley is grateful that his family has supported him through these unpleasant times, despite them also bearing the brunt of his actions and losing everything with him (they only knew what was happening after the fateful email of 9 April 2021). He now has to figure out how to move on with his life.
Apart from whatever court action may be forthcoming, he wants to make restitution for his crimes, and has to look at what the future holds and how he can move ahead and rebuild.
About Chris Bentley
Prior to his brief wayward period, Bentley lived a full life in service to others. After graduating from high school, he joined the US Marines for 14 and a half years. After leaving the Marine Corps, Bentley moved to Houston and got his first job in the oil and gas industry. During this time, he was very active as a volunteer in his community, helping with ministries at his church and coaching youth soccer at two different recreational leagues. Bentley has also been very active in supporting the military veteran community in Houston and beyond.
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