Just two months after emerging from personal bankruptcy, Mount Pleasant businessman Jeremy Blackburn is the CEO of a busy manufacturing company with international clients, and has been doing work on Donald Trump Jr.'s plan to buy an important redevelopment site in North Charleston.
Blackburn, a 41-year-old Utah native, has flown high in the business world, in real estate development, mortgage lending, insurance, and even founded a bank. But he's also had a series of lows, including failed business deals in South Carolina, unpaid debts, allegations of fraud, and bankruptcy.
In May 2013 he declared in a Utah court filing that he had no income, more than $6.4 million in debts, and just $2,500 in assets - mostly the security deposit on his rental home and his wedding ring. This is the same man who was jetting to Puerto Penasco, Mexico, with Trump and an investment banker to check out opportunities there in December 2010, while also running a North Charleston manufacturing business in which Trump was an investor.
"I hated to file bankruptcy," Blackburn said during a lengthy interview Friday. "I understand the implications, I founded a bank."
That bank, America West Bank, was shut down by Utah regulators in 2009. Blackburn notes that many banks failed during the recession and his partner in the bank venture, Utah lawyer Douglas Durbano, is still pursuing litigation challenging the regulatory action.
Durbano and Trump are the developers behind a pending $9.2 million deal to buy the 10-story former Naval Hospital and the Shipwatch Square shopping center site in North Charleston, together nearly 40 acres at the intersection of Rivers and McMillan avenues. The contract, officially between the city and Chicora Gardens Holdings LLC, was signed near the end of 2012, and the sale of the hospital property is expected to close in the coming week.
It's a key redevelopment deal for the city, aimed at revitalizing the south end of the city and bringing a grocery store to the area. Early plans called for a grocery store on the shopping center site, medical business uses in the former hospital, public parks, a new library, and other features.
Blackburn is not one of the developers or financiers of the deal, but his involvement has included giving presentations to public officials about the development plan, and the company he runs, Titan Atlas Global, was hired as a consultant to help with permitting and construction aspects of the project. His association with both Trump and Durbano goes back many years.
"I can confirm that I have known Jeremy for many years, and I can confirm that he has had some stumbles in his life," said Durbano, 58. "That doesn't mean he has been deceitful or dishonest."
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, while noting that Blackburn is not one of the principals in the development deal, said he's aware of Blackburn's business history and is not surprised or concerned.
"In my experience, any time a business goes downhill there are allegations of fraud," said the mayor.
A decade ago
Lowcountry residents, particularly those living up the coast near Myrtle Beach, may recall stories about Blackburn getting sued in 2004 by an Alabama man who invested $1 million in an insurance company venture with Blackburn and others including Gregory McClelland, a South Carolina business partner already under investigation for fraudulent insurance practices. Blackburn said he was shocked to learn about the allegations against McClelland, and that the man who sued was an investor and participant in the venture who needed his money back quickly for a different business.
"Like, two weeks later (after asking for the money) he files a lawsuit," Blackburn said.
Blackburn's bankruptcy last year wiped away a $757,500 debt he owed that man, Lalikant Modi, from a court settlement in the insurance company case, in which Modi claimed he had been the victim of a fraudulent scheme.
Blackburn was also in the news back in 2004 after he sent Atlantic Beach residents unsolicited offers to buy their beachfront properties for roughly half their value, the Sun News reported at the time. And a controversial Georgetown condo project he was a partner in ended badly, with a $2.5 million loan default.
Blackburn said the default came after a lawsuit by some Georgetown City Council members, challenging the mayor's tie-breaking vote on a zoning issue needed for the development, caused protracted delays.
But for those who operate in the world of high finance, it seems there's always another deal waiting around the corner.
In 2009 amid the recession, as America West Bank was being seized by regulators in Utah, Blackburn was investing along with Trump and another associate, Washington state farmer Lee Eickmeyer, in a North Charleston business that manufactured prefabricated panels for home construction.
The idea was that the strong, lightweight panels could be shipped to emerging-market nations in kits, along with appliances and fixtures, as house-in-a-box packages that could be assembled easily. A related company also briefly sold small power-generating wind turbines, some of which can still be seen on the roof of North Charleston City Hall.
But Titan Atlas Manufacturing was quickly tied up in extensive, expensive litigation, mostly involving patent disputes about the panel product. And the patent litigation led to more litigation, as one of the law firms sued Blackburn and Titan Atlas Manufacturing for not paying their legal bills.
"It's really difficult when your attorneys sue you," said Blackburn, who laid off more than 40 people when the company shut down in 2012.
U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson, in a memorandum supporting his decision to grant an injunction in that dispute, said "the Court believes Blackburn's prior deceptive behavior warrants judicial monitoring at the present time."
"Defendant Titan has shown a propensity of getting involved in litigation, retaining lawyers, and then reneging on its payment obligations," Baylson wrote.
Blackburn said all the litigation helped ruin the company and his own finances.
"I put over $1 million of my own money (into Titan)," he said. "Frankly, we just ran out of money."
In May 2013, in his bankruptcy filing, Blackburn claimed just $50 in his bank account, an no source of income.
The law firm that had sued him, winning a more than $402,000 judgement, saw the debt wiped away by the bankruptcy. So did a Connecticut man who had loaned Blackburn money to invest in Titan, and was owed $306,000 by Blackburn.
There were other debts, including Blackburn's liability for a bank loan to buy the Titan company. Blackburn blames the patent litigation, and the lawyers.
What can you do?
"In hindsight, I don't know what I would have done differently," Blackburn said.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said he's sympathetic to the problems at Titan.
"Any startup company has issues," Summey said.
In 2013, a company that Durbano registered in Utah contracted to buy the assets of Titan Atlas Manufacturing, and began leasing the company building and equipment in North Charleston with the asset sale pending. Blackburn was hired as CEO of the new company, Titan Atlas Global.
At about the same time, Blackburn was being required in Utah to take a course about managing his personal finances, as part of the bankruptcy process. His debts were discharged - eliminated - in November.
Blackburn said that in this incarnation of the Titan company, he's an employee and not a shareholder.
"We've got over 40 people working here," Blackburn said. "There's a lot of good we're doing."
Summey also noted the jobs that have been re-created at the Atlas facility.
"Jeremy - everything he's ever told me, he's lived up to," said the mayor.
Rick Brownyard, a lawyer representing Chicora Gardens Holdings, said Blackburn is not an owner, member or employee of the development company, but interacts with Chicora through his role at Titan Atlas Global.
Blackburn said Titan is doing many positive things, building affordable housing and employing lots of people who might have trouble finding work - those who have served time in jail. He attribute most of his past business failures and debts to legal problems caused by others, and continues to enjoy the confidence of people in positions of power.
"I don't have to go curl up in a ball, in a fetal position," Blackburn said. "I have the right to start over."