MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
Michael Hilton showed up in Hardin last week, presenting himself as an economic savior, the man who would take over the town's $27 million jail empty since it was built as a development project in 2007 and provide 200 new jobs in the process. He wore a military style uniform, and, as a gesture to local law enforcement, offered up the use of three Mercedes SUVs. But the man who styles himself as a military veteran turned private sector entrepreneur and a California defense contractor with extensive government contracts also has another image, and that one is provided by public documents and interviews with associates and legal adversaries. The record says that he is a convicted felon with a number of aliases, a string of legal judgments against him, two bankruptcies and a decades-long reputation for deals gone bad. American Police Force is the company Hilton formed in March to take over The Hardin jail. "Such schemes you cannot believe," said Joseph Carella, an Orange County, Calif., doctor and co-defendant with Hilton in a real estate fraud case that resulted in a civil judgment against Hilton and several others. "The guy's brilliant. If he had been able to do honest work, he probably would have been a gazillionaire," Carella said. Court documents show Hilton has outstanding judgments against him in three civil cases totaling more than $1.1 million. As for Hilton's military expertise, including his claim to have advised forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, those interviewed knew of no such feats. Instead, Hilton was described alternately by those who know him as an arts dealer, cook, restaurant owner, land developer, loan broker and car salesman always with a moneymaking scheme in the works. Hilton did not return several calls seeking comment. American Police Force attorney Maziar Mafi referred questions to company spokeswoman Becky Shay. When asked about court records detailing Hilton's past, Shay replied, "The documents speak for themselves. If anyone has found public documents, the documents are what they are." Shay declined comment on Hilton's military experience. Al Peterson, vice president of Hardin's Two Rivers Authority, which built the jail, declined to comment on Hilton's legal troubles. He refused to say if he knew about Hilton's past when the authority reached a 10-year agreement with American Police Force last month. The deal is worth more than $2.6 million a year, according to city leaders. Hilton has also pledged to build a $17 million military and law enforcement training center. And he's promised to dispatch security to patrol Hardin's streets, build an animal shelter and a homeless shelter and offer free health care to city resident's out of the jail's clinic. Those additional promises were not included in the jail agreement, which remains in limbo because US Bank has so far declined to sign off on the contract. The bank is the trustee for the bonds used to fund the jail. A US Bank spokeswoman declined to comment, but Peterson was adamant the deal would be approved. "It's a solid deal. That's all I'll say," he said.