When Reporting Becomes Enabling

Reporters are constantly deciding which stories they will chase and which they won’t. They are always sizing people up and determining whether or not they are credible; doing background research to ensure what they’re being told is true; talking to people who might have another view of an issue or version of a story. They don’t follow up every email suggestion or print every press release. They employ their critical judgement.

Except when they ball that judgement up like a bad first draft and throw it out the window.

I was thinking about that recently watching a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford University drop-out who claimed to have invented a machine that could take a tiny drop of blood and run hundreds of medical diagnostic tests from it. Her Silicon Valley startup, Theranos, attracted millions in investment — mostly from people who didn’t know anything about the science of blood-testing but who found her story compelling.

Holmes was greatly aided and abetted in disseminating that compelling story by the media, which loved her Steve Jobs-esque persona and her (supposedly) disruptive technology and gave her reams of fawning, uncritical coverage. In doing so, it accepted her right to not answer questions. As John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who finally, thanks to a tip from a whistleblower, exposed Holmes, wrote:

The Palo Alto, Calif., company says it abides by all applicable federal lab regulations and hasn’t exaggerated its achievements. It disputes that its device could do just 15 tests, declining to say how many tests it now handles or to respond to some questions about its lab procedures, citing “trade secrets.”

Roger Parloff, who wrote a flattering cover story for Fortune magazine about Holmes, followed up with a “protracted correction” in which he also reported having been fobbed off with a warning that his questions were “getting into the realm of trade secret.”


Trade secrets

Thinking about Holmes and her extravagant claims and her need for secrecy and her free pass in the press got me to thinking about our port “developer,” Albert Barbusci.

Like Holmes, Barbusci has an audacious plan — his goal is to “make transportation history” by changing the way international shipping lines service the East Coast of North America.

Like Holmes, Barbusci claims the need for secrecy — here’s a representative sample from a recent Cape Breton Post story:

“Our secrets are being well kept right now and that’s the way I want to keep ‘em,” Barbusci said in a brief phone interview Friday morning from Montréal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport before he disembarked on a flight to a destination he wasn’t willing to disclose.

He said work continues on attracting investment to Sydney harbour and the state of the project remains in “great shape.” But he also doesn’t want to tip his hand to help his competitors by talking about the project in the media.

“Every time we come out with our strategy … I read our own strategies back in our own competitors’ news and so they use all of our strategic information for their benefit. I’m not about to do that anymore. And there’s no reason to do it.”

And like Holmes, Barbusci is getting a free pass from local media outlets which continue to report on his container port project like it is a real thing.

But let’s keep it 100: Barbusci has not attracted millions of dollars in investment or gone public with his company or put lives in danger, as Holmes did with her faulty technology. His company, Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP) is not a criminal enterprise — it isn’t really an enterprise at all.

My point in making the comparison is that what credibility Barbusci has is due, largely, to media outlets treating him like he is a serious player in the international shipping world, just as the media treated Holmes like she was a serious player in the medical technology world.

That’s a problem.



There’s another feature Barbusci shares with Holmes: like her, he has nothing in his background that would qualify him for the stupendous task he’s set himself.

Holmes was a 19-year-old university undergrad who dropped out after her professor of medicine looked at an earlier proposal and explained why the technology would never work.

Barbusci is a Montreal advertising executive who entered into a joint venture with a bigger advertising agency in 1995, was bought out in 1999 and has been trying to start another business venture — any other business venture — ever since. That’s not exactly how he would put it, of course, but knocking holes in the stories he tells about himself is not difficult.

Consider the biography he included in a 2006 filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At the time, Barbusci was heading a company called Dynasty Gaming (a purveyor of online Mah-jong) and he filed a Form 20-F, which is required of foreign companies wanting to issue stock in the US. I looked into each aspect of this bio and found problems with almost everything, starting with the opening reference:

Mr. Barbusci is a successful entrepreneur who has transformed vision and opportunity into several successful enterprises over the last 20 years. His first business, Cadence Communications, launched in Montreal in 1980, was an award-winning advertising and marketing agency that laid the foundation for the creation of Dentsu Cadence Canada Inc., a partnership with Japan’s Dentsu Inc., the world’s largest stand-alone agency with billings over $14 billion annually.

Barbusci did form a joint venture with Dentsu, but they bought him out in 1999. I can find no record of his involvement with Dentsu post-sale, and though one of his two LinkedIn profiles still lists him as president of Cadence Communications (with a typo in “communications”), the firm no longer claims any connection to Dentsu:


The Port of Sydney paid Cadence $75,000 for “communications plan, digital strategy and government and media relations” back in 2016/17.



Albert who?

The SEC bio continues:

In 1994, he became a partner of the Atlanta Consulting Group, a successful U.S. business, consulting to Fortune 1000 companies…

In another online bio, he lists the Atlanta Consulting Group as one of the firms he has “led.”

If you Google “Atlanta Consulting Group” there is one company that dominates the search returns, so I am going to go out on a limb and assume Barbusci meant this Atlanta Consulting Group.

But in 2016, I contacted that Atlanta Consulting Group and spoke to Terri Sponseller, VP, who has been with the company since 1991 and who “is responsible for operations, administrative issues, human resources and client service.” She told me she had never heard of Albert Barbusci and said they had no “partners” in Canada.

The bio continues:

…in 1998, he partnered with Grey Healthcare Group, one of the largest Pharmaceutical Marketing and Advertising agencies in the world for the purpose of establishing Phase V Communications in Canada.

In 2016, in response to an email asking about the partnership between Albert Barbusci and Grey Healthcare Group, Dan Relton, the group’s director of human resources worldwide, told me in an email:

We don’t know this person. Phase V Canada isn’t affiliated with us.



The SEC bio continues:

Continuing his focus on the healthcare sector, he established Biotonix Inc. in partnership with the Desjardins Group in 2000. Biotonix is the first Internet-based Health company (iHealth) to successfully utilize sophisticated knowledge systems and Web-based applications to deliver non-invasive production solutions for lower back pain, cumulative trauma disorders, Osteoporosis and fitness/wellness.

Barbusci did not establish Biotonix.

Biotonix was founded in the ’90s (as Tonix) by Sylvain Guimond who devised those “sophisticated knowledge systems” and who is very much involved with the company to this day.

In 2000, Tonix became Biotonix with “a new management team and strategic investors.” Those investors were Cadence Communications and Investissement Desjardins, the venture capital arm of Mouvement Desjardins who, according to this 2004 article, invested $10 million. For a couple of years thereafter (long enough to pose for this 2001 picture which looks like it should be the cover of his album, “No Need to Reinvent the Wheel”), Barbusci served as president:



That same year (2001) Barbusci even appeared in the Journal de Montréal with Biotonix’s most famous client, Mario Lemieux. Note, he is listed as “president” and his new company — Events International Meeting Planners — is now listed as a shareholder.

On a side note, Guimond was in New York on 9/11, working with players from the New York Rangers. When the Journal de Montréal told the story, in September 2002, it chose to illustrate it with the Lemieux photo, after undertaking some subtle editing:

By 2003, articles about Biotonix list Guimond as president and I could find no further references to Barbusci in connection with the company.

Until, that is, 2012, when Barbusci was charged with selling Biotonix shares without a prospectus and (in 2014) fined $60,000 by the Quebec’s Autorité des marchés financiers.



On the Novaporte website, Barbusci characterizes himself as a “born entrepreneur” who has “worked with business partners around the world including Europe, the Middle East, Japan, China and South East Asia. He established his own highly successful advertising agency, Cadence Communications, in Montréal.”

He then devotes an entire paragraph to his joint venture with Dentsu.

Think about that: all his “work” with business partners around the world hasn’t yielded a single success story to which he can point so instead, he’s forced to talk about a joint venture that ended — with him being bought out — in 1999.

He’s dropped the references to Biotonix and Grey Healthcare Group, but continues to claim that in the 1990s, he “became a partner of the Atlanta Consulting Group, a successful U.S. firm, consulting to Fortune 1000 companies.”

Barbusci notes that he “founded and served as CEO of Events International Inc, a full-service world congress Management Company,” but doesn’t mention that this firm went through a variety of odd and unsuccessful transformations — shifting its focus from medical conferences to online Mah-jong, to high-end Chinese “Memorial Halls,” to Mongolian gold, to Arizona copper — until on 25 May 2015, the Ontario Securities Commission issued the company a permanent cease-trade order.

And then, on 26 May 2015, he registered Harbor Port Development Partners (HPDP, which became SHIP) and shifted his focus to port development.

Barbusci also leaves out his latest ventures — two tree-climbing adventure parks in Florida, one of which is due to open at the end of this month.

For the record: I asked Barbusci to clarify his roles with the Grey Healthcare Group and the Atlanta Consulting Group back in 2016 and he suggested that we “carve out a few minutes to meet in person” when he was next in Sydney so he could tell me all about his past and present business ventures. We were going to have breakfast. Then he canceled.


Local angle

As I noted above, you can only push comparisons between Barbusci and Holmes so far: Holmes has been charged with conspiring to defraud investors and mislead doctors and patients about the speed and accuracy of her blood-testing technology. She’s (apparently) a big-time fraud.

But I still think there’s a lesson to be learned from the Theranos case: if supposedly sophisticated American investors and top-drawer financial reporters could be taken in by someone like Elizabeth Holmes, is it unreasonable to suggest that municipal politicians and general reporters here in the CBRM might be taken for a ride by a Montreal advertising executive?

Is it possible we’ve been dazzled by an audacious plan? Our better instincts stymied by an insistence on secrecy that borders on paranoia? Is it not time to revoke Barbusci’s free pass and do some actual reporting on his claims?

(And yes, that’s a purely rhetorical question — I know precisely what the answer is.)