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Sunday, March 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dot-com 'millionaire' told just enough truth to fool UW

Seattle Times staff reporter

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He had a seductive story, an air of confidence and an off-the-charts résumé. Most importantly, he said he was rich.

It took little more to get Ravi Gunvant Desai embraced by the University of Washington, two other public universities and a small private college - all of which are still waiting for him to deliver more than $5 million in pledges he made to their poetry programs.

Many of the stories Desai told have since unraveled, and the motives behind his yet-to-be-kept promises remain a mystery.

But the 31-year-old Harvard graduate's methods, and the kudos he collected along the way, are impressive.

So is the degree to which he was taken at his word.

The UW hosted a $10,000 ceremony to honor Desai's $2 million pledge last year. Warren Wilson College in North Carolina announced his $150,000 gift to great applause at a fine-arts graduation. The University of Florida invited him to a football game and is now expecting $2 million. The University of New Hampshire let him attend a creative-writing class and has been promised $1 million.

At the time all the fussing seemed a good investment. And UW officials say they remain hopeful Desai will deliver on his promises.

Desai, in an e-mail to The Seattle Times on Friday, said he intends to do just that, providing the money through his foundation. Yesterday, in another e-mail, he said reports of inconsistencies in his story were false and a "smear."

Records and interviews reveal that Desai claimed job titles and stock options he never held and married his second wife without divorcing his first, whom he said was dead.

If his promised gifts fail to materialize, it may turn out that UW fund-raisers were charmed by their desire to believe.

"Remember, here was a guy who had relationships with the poet laureate of the United States," said Norm Arkans, UW associate vice president for university relations. "There were things that made it seem real."

Desai's most recent boss, Rajeev Karajgikar, who in January asked Desai to resign as chief executive officer of the Silicon Valley consulting firm Formulasys.com, said:

"He was manipulating me like a piano - pressing all the right buttons at all the right times. I kind of got sucked in. When you really trust someone you want to believe."

It all came `out of the blue'

The phrase "out of the blue" follows Desai like a poetic refrain. As a philanthropist, he appeared as if from nowhere, a messiah of poetry come to financially redeem an art form short on cash.

"Out of the blue," said poet Charles Simic, a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

"Out of the blue," said William Logan, a professor at the University of Florida.

"FYI. Out of the blue," wrote UW President Richard McCormick as he forwarded colleagues the surprise e-mail he received from Desai on Oct. 8, 1999.

In that e-mail, obtained by The Times through the state Open Records Act, Desai introduced himself as an Internet entrepreneur, then the managing director of Scient, a leading e-commerce consulting firm, and formerly the founding CEO of TheStreet.com, a prominent financial news Web site.

"While I have an association with the technology industry, my true passion is for poetry," he wrote. "Indeed, I even used to write until I realized just how talentless I was."

In other versions of his background, Desai expanded on his transformation from aspiring bard to businessman: He became smitten with poetry as an undergraduate at Harvard University, then followed his dream of writing to the master-of-fine-arts program at the University of Houston, where he realized he wasn't going to cut it, dropped out and enrolled in business school at the University of Chicago.

"The fascinating thing about Ravi," said Florida's Logan, "is that so much of his story was true. So much of what anybody could check was true. He learned a lesson many people learn, which is that if you are going to tell a lie, make sure a lot of it is true."

Much of his history checks out

What checks out:

Desai graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991, majoring in English and American literature and language.

He was a word man - a lover of stories, according to his first wife, Jennifer Call. They met as Harvard undergraduates and applied together to master-of-fine-arts programs.

"They were our top applicants that year," said Florida's Logan. "We recruited them very strongly. They were both fine young poets ... and they chose to go to the University of Houston."

After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1994, Desai logged a string of jobs in high finance and high tech, and short stints as a financial journalist. Along the way, he worked for TheStreet.com and Scient.

Stock options earned at those two companies, Desai told the UW, would fund his $2 million pledge.

No stock options, no dead wife

There were no stock options. And Desai exaggerated his positions at both companies in his e-mail to McCormick and on his résumé, which is almost two pages long.

Desai was briefly a CEO at TheStreet.com, but he was not the "founding CEO," according to the company. And he was pushed out in early 1997 after company officials grew alarmed at his erratic behavior and business practices, according to several former co-workers.

As part of an exit agreement at TheStreet.com, Desai gave up any stock options in exchange for an agreement that the company would not to pursue legal action against him, according to a company official who asked not to be identified.

People at TheStreet.com say they are barred from speaking publicly about Desai's departure because of a confidentiality agreement. Desai cited the same agreement in declining to discuss his time there.

Desai and Call were married in Vermont in 1997 and then moved to California.

In February 1999, Desai started at Scient, working out of its San Francisco office. Officials said he was a managing director in the company's financial-services division - not "the managing director of Scient," as he told McCormick.

He left Scient in fall 1999 without any stock options. Memories of his departure, according to former co-workers, are entwined with the belief that his wife had recently passed away.

"I felt very bad for him when I found out his wife was dying and she was pregnant," said Bob Beck, a vice president of human resources at Scient. Her subsequent death from cancer, Beck said, was "common knowledge."

Condolence calls, divorce filings

In summer 1999, shortly before Desai left Scient, Jennifer Call started getting condolence calls at the rental home she shared with Desai in Menlo Park, Calif.

But Call was not pregnant, nor did she have cancer. That August, the couple filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.

"I don't understand it myself," Call said of Desai's passion for philanthropy. During the two years they lived together, she said, he sometimes complained of trouble making ends meet.

Court records show that Desai has refused repeated requests by Call's lawyers to disclose his financial records in their unfinished divorce proceedings.

Desai now lives in Menlo Park with Christine Klingler, whom he married last April at Lake Tahoe.

"This is all kind of tragic in its own way because he is so bright and so charming," Call said. "My theory is that he's much more to be pitied and helped than censured."

The UW did check him out

A background check by the UW, conducted after Desai first made his pledge, mostly confirmed his story. It determined that Desai had been "unceremoniously booted" from TheStreet.com but was unclear as to exactly what Desai's title was at Scient.

Then in January of last year, a few weeks before the UW held its grand ceremony for Desai, he gathered the first and only meeting of the Desai Foundation Board in Washington, D.C.

Board members included Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate; Heather McHugh, professor of creative writing at the UW; Logan, from Florida; Simic, from New Hampshire; and Ellen Bryant Voigt, founder of the master-of-fine-arts program at Warren Wilson College.

The meeting was "disastrous," according to an e-mail sent later by McHugh to David Wu, UW vice president for development.

All five members say they are no longer part of the foundation. The Desai Foundation is not registered in California, where Desai first said it was. In an e-mail response to questions from The Seattle Times, he says it is now registered in India.

Logan said Desai has not paid board members the $2,500 quarterly stipends he promised. Desai says there was never any formal agreement about stipends.

McHugh remembers that Desai seemed hurt when she insisted on more information about the foundation before she would allow her name to be used on its letterhead.

"That suggests someone to whom a paper trail is an important part of his life," McHugh said. "In retrospect, I worry that he's using paper to get more paper."

Faculty, others had suspicions

In the UW English and creative-writing departments, concerns about Desai already had been circulating for months before the UW ceremony. Faculty members and local literati punched Desai's name into Internet search engines and talked to colleagues who had met him.

"What came up was a journalist who couldn't write very well, who was attention-seeking ... who had been employed for about five minutes at TheStreet.com," said Seattle author Jonathan Raban, who checked into Desai after word of his pledge spread through the local literary community.

A real mogul, Raban assumed, would generate a lot of Internet hits. "With Ravi I was getting no more than a minimal trace."

Since then, Raban has been an unwavering skeptic about Desai. He has "promised solemnly to eat a 9-by-5 Persian carpet, thread by thread, if this money shows up."

Raban's skepticism is shared. In January of last year, UW English professor David Bosworth wrote in an e-mail to McHugh:

"Time to add some things up: Ravi's won double honors in English and Physics at Harvard, climbed Mt. Everest, is on such intimate terms with (the poet) Seamus Heaney that he calls him Uncle Schmoo ... has lost his wife and acquired a degenerative nerve disease, etc. - all by his early thirties. The picture isn't very plausible, but the question remains whether we have someone who stretches the truth now and then or whose life, as presented, is a fabrication."

Wu, the UW vice president for development, knew of some of the faculty concerns and the failed foundation board meeting. He also knew Desai's gift to the University of New Hampshire had not come through.

Those concerns didn't derail the process of securing the pledge at the UW.

"Philanthropy is based on goodwill and trust," said Arkans, of UW university relations. "We were acting on the basis of that trust."

Still, as a precaution, Wu called Desai shortly before the ceremony.

"I asked him about announcing the gift and whether or not everything was in place to do that - meaning his full intention of making the gift," Wu said. "He said yes."

The ceremony goes on

The Feb. 16, 2000, ceremony went ahead as planned. The poet laureate attended. A special ice ax was purchased for Desai, who UW officials believed had climbed Everest.

The purpose of the event was part thanksgiving, part public relations, according to Wu.

"We hope that philanthropy will always inspire others to be philanthropic," he said.

Desai walked into the UW's Penthouse Theater wearing a smart suit and narrow-framed glasses. Programs for the event listed him a president and CEO of a company called Logical Information Machines. In fact, Desai has never worked there, company President Tony Kolton said later.

Local media were on hand, and the stories about Desai ran on the front pages of both The Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Pinsky, the poet laureate, thanked Desai for his generosity. McHugh, the UW professor, read a poem she wrote for the occasion called "Song for a Mountain Climber."

"Since fondness is rooted in folly," McHugh began, "we should pray that God's indifferent... "

An assemblage of deans, professors and creative-writing students sat in the audience. Images of ice axes shone on the stage floor. McHugh read on:

"Love takes an object, takes a shine

to the calf whose gold its own

eye smitheries have minted... "

Another promise rings false

More than a year later, Desai's gift remains nothing more tangible than excuses and promises. At one point, Desai told Wu his options were tied up in a legal battle with Scient. He now says he has never had a legal dispute with the company.

Desai missed a June 2000 deadline for his lump-sum payment of $2 million, then failed to follow through on a payment plan worked out with the UW. So far, only one check from Desai - for $6,770 - has arrived.

Recently, Desai offered to give the UW stock in Formulasys.com, though the company is not publicly traded and its owner, Karajgikar, said he owns all the shares.

Eli Sanders can be reached at 206-748-5815 or esanders@seattletimes.com.

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