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Saturday, Mar 23 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Unlike father, unlike son: Malcolm Rivera is a walking irony

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Arvin High School senior Malcolm Rivera specializes in the presidency, Congress, federalism and irony.

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James Armando Rivera is a smart guy, of that there can be little doubt. He has an imagination worthy of a television writer and a gift for persuasion that would've impressed Dale Carnegie. With qualifications like that, you'd expect Rivera to have an address somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard. Close, but he's in a different part of Los Angeles County: the federal penitentiary at Terminal Island.

Rivera got there by cheating hundreds of people across the country who thought they were investing in groundbreaking wind turbine technology or other innovative but fictitious products. And he didn't pull off his scams with the fast talk of just any pedestrian con man. He aimed high.

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OFF TO NATIONALS

Arvin High School's 26-student "We the People" team is going to the national competition in Washington, D.C., April 27-29 and still needs about $25,000 for travel expenses. If you can help, call the school at 854-5561 .

Rivera, whose various frauds may have netted "hundreds of millions of dollars," according to a state securities administrator in Maine, lured in his victims with a bald-faced marketing onslaught. The Nigerian government had committed to buying more than $1 billion worth of Rivera's windmills, he claimed, and film director Oliver Stone was planning to power the movie set of his next picture with the cutting-edge contraptions. The stories seem fantastical in retrospect, but the victims included some sophisticated investors.

It all eventually caught up with him, and in June 2011 Rivera was convicted of 10 counts of wire fraud. He won't be released until June 17, 2022.

Malcolm Rivera is a smart guy, too, and he's got the resume to prove it. A very different kind of resume. James Rivera's 17-year-old son is near the top of his class at Arvin High School, a four-year veteran of Academic Decathlon competition and one of the stars of an Arvin team that's heading off to Washington, D.C., next month with a wild-card invitation to the "We the People" nationals. Malcolm couldn't be more impressive if he were an Eagle Scout. Which he is.

Father and son make a good case for nurture over nature.

"He put so much effort into doing bad, into defrauding people," Malcolm says of his father, who is now 46. "I wonder what he might have accomplished if he had put his energy into something other than malice, if he'd worked for good instead of cheating innocent people out of their money."

Malcolm's mother Gina Rivera hasn't quite figured out where the influence of DNA stops and the impact of watchful guidance begins but she's thankful for the result.

"I provided peace and stability for him when there was so much uncertainty and anger," she said. "I told him, 'Here's the deal, I'm all you have left. We'll have to get through this together.'"

There was plenty to get through, too, and it didn't have anything to do with the Nigerian government or Oliver Stone. For years, there was only fear, intimidation and the near-constant threat of child abduction.

***

Before he discovered the exhilaration and mind-boggling profit of securities fraud, Rivera entertained himself by ripping off Bakersfield homeowners and conjuring up fictional business opportunities.

He took deposits for jobs laying carpet and tile, telling one customer the work would be filmed as part of the PBS home improvement program "Energy Wise Healthy Home." He took money for painting jobs he never performed and bilked one married couple out of $35,000 for an investment in a company called UltraTek Coatings, putting up as collateral an east Bakersfield house he didn't own.

To say this sort of life strained their marriage hardly suffices. It essentially ended, after 11 years, on June 17, 2004, the day James overheard Gina talking on the phone with a Bakersfield police detective. The next day James announced he was taking Malcolm to the movies. Instead he took him to Minnesota and phoned Gina to tell her she'd never see him again. With the help of the Kern County District Attorney's office, local police found James and pounced, and Malcolm came home to Bakersfield. He'd been gone for 18 days.

James didn't give up. Bakersfield police and the county's Child Protective Services received anonymous, false tips that Gina was planning to harm Malcolm and commit suicide. When CPS investigated, the social worker told Gina, "If I were you, I'd take my child and run." That was good enough for Gina. She and Malcolm fled to Washington state's Whidbey Island, where her eldest son, Michael Ojeda, was stationed with the Navy. James learned her location quickly enough, however, and the calls resumed. For months she hunkered down with Malcolm, who by this time was 10, wondering whether every clattering trash can lid, every disembodied howl of the wind, might be her estranged husband crawling in a window to make good on his promise to take back his boy.

"Are there girl angels in heaven?" Malcolm once asked his mother.

James never tried to find them in Washington -- local police there knew all about him -- but when Michael was deployed after 18 months, Gina, afraid to stay without his protection, packed up her son and moved to Lamont.

She put Malcolm in a private school, thinking it would be safer than a public school, and she found a job. "One day, my boss said, 'Your ex-husband is on the Internet. There's a blog that's devoted to him, written by people who have been victimized by him.'" Law enforcement couldn't seem to find him, though.

That changed when James, seeking visitation with Malcolm, convinced a Los Angeles County judge to hear his case. There, in Gina's court paperwork, was James' address in the city of Carson. Gina shared it with the FBI, Bakersfield police and law enforcement officials in Las Vegas, where he was wanted for contractor fraud.

Once she got to court, Gina mentioned to a bailiff that James had an outstanding warrant for violating a criminal restraining order. The bailiff confirmed it was true and L.A. sheriff's deputies made the arrest. Over the next several days, James was passed from one jurisdiction to another, answering charges in Bakersfield, Las Vegas and finally Los Angeles, where he faced federal charges.

Federal prosecutors laid out the details at Rivera's trial. He ran the scheme out of the Carson offices of companies he called Apostles Inc. and Almighty Wind Inc. He told his 50 victims -- half of them elderly and one a U.S. Army staff sergeant who was serving on active duty in Afghanistan -- that the International Monetary Fund was providing hundreds of millions of dollars in financing. He falsely claimed he held multiple patents on the windmill design and that within months a company in Brazil would begin full-scale production. A huge U.S. retail chain had ordered dozens that would be installed on the rooftops of its stores, he said. In truth, Rivera had no customer orders, no financing arrangements, no patents. What he had was a slick online seminar about the venture.

He also sold investors on a phony air conditioning unit he called a Quick Energy Recovery Ventilator, which he said never breaks down because it's self-cleaning and never gets dirty. The fantasy inventions, supposedly being built in Arkansas, sounded good to at least six investors around the country.

In the end, Rivera was ordered to pay $1 million in restitution to his victims, many of whom he'd met through a Bakersfield church.

***

Talk about sweet irony. Malcolm Rivera is probably smart enough, focused enough, to do just about anything in life he'd like to do. But he is leaning toward one of two careers: Law enforcement or law -- specifically a prosecutor in a district attorney's office somewhere in America. He has already been accepted into seven universities, with two -- UC Berkeley and Texas Christian -- yet to reveal verdicts. If they accept him, he'll be a perfect nine out of nine.

"He's pretty exceptional," said his scoutmaster, BPD Officer Robert Tackett. "The adults in Scouting are just the mentors; Scouts like Malcolm are the actual leaders, and he has really great leadership abilities. The boys really respected him."

Appropriately enough, Malcolm's Eagle Scout project benefited the domestic violence shelter in Bakersfield. Now the biggest project on his plate is "We the People," a competition based on knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and, specifically, interpretation of constitutional principals. Malcom's area is Unit 4, which covers the presidency, Congress and federalism.

"He knows his material," Robert Ruckman, the team's teacher/coach, said. "He's quite competitive, too. He likes to win. And he has a great ethical sense about him, who he is and what he wants to accomplish in life. He knows he'll have to work to get there. He's had setbacks along the way. A lot of students might be used to success, but when they run into obstacles, they're like, 'How come this isn't easy for me?' Malcolm will take that challenge for what it is. 'OK, I'll have to work harder.' I expect great things from him."

Arvin placed second to Amador Valley High School of Pleasanton in the California "We the People" competition earlier this year but was awarded a wild-card berth in the nationals. The 26-member team has been preparing daily for the big trip, which will include visits to the Capitol, the Supreme Court and assorted museums.

"I'd say at this point everyone is focused but laid back," said Malcolm, who is ranked fifth in his class. "We know how to study now. This is not about learning new information anymore, it's about getting finesse into our presentation."

The trip will cost the Arvin team about $90,000. Sponsors have helped out considerably, but the team still needs about $25,000. Gina Rivera just happens to be the team's fundraising coordinator.

***

Malcolm says he has no particular interest in seeing his father again, but who knows how he might feel in 2022? Gina wouldn't try to stop him.

"Do I like this man? No. But it's not for me to say that he can't change," she said. "If Malcolm decides he'd like to get to know his dad I'd be OK with it."

It might be a painful reunion.

"Malcolm always says his goal in life is to be a man," Gina said. "He looked at what his father did and decided to do exactly the opposite."

In an email to The Californian nine years ago, long before the FBI got ahold of him, James Rivera expressed regret about the way his relationship with Malcolm had gone. "I wonder when he is older what he'll think," Rivera wrote. "He is a smart kid ... (and) will probably be mad that I did not fight for him. I don't know how I'll handle that. We'll find out in about nine years, though."

Nine years have come and gone, and if Malcolm has regrets about that lost relationship, he does a great job of hiding it.

"This was all my mother," he said. "She taught me from a very early age that education mattered. She told me, 'You're not going to end up digging ditches. You're going to school.' And then she made sure of it."

For many parents, the hardest part of raising a brilliant son might be turning him loose. Gina Rivera has already crossed that bridge.

"I've already let go of Malcolm," she said. "Had to let go a couple years ago when I saw what he was doing and where he was going. I'll be fine." She'll be fine in no small part because all signs point to the likelihood that Malcolm, too, will be fine.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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