FEATURE: Watchmaker's dodgy financial dealings and a chequered past
KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - A month-long investigation by The Kathmandu Post shows how Michael Kobold has used a string of lies and exaggerations to raise funds for his fire truck campaign, while continuing to threaten and refusing to pay Nepali entrepreneurs
In January last year, the Nepal Tourism Board signed an agreement to grant $200,000 to the Soarway Institute for Development for its project, the ‘Nepal Fire Truck Expedition,’ an initiative to bring second-hand fire trucks donated from the United States to Nepal.Behind this campaign, and signing on behalf of the Soarway Institute for Development, was German watchmaker Michael Kobold, who has been living on and off in Kathmandu for the past decade.
The expedition, which Kobold had pitched as a “tourism promotion” event for Nepal, would bring “international celebrities, diplomats and adventurers,” along with social media endorsements from Hollywood influencers like Johnny Depp, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. Kobold also guaranteed coverage from at least seven international media outlets, including a two-part special for the American public television network PBS and an article by a former New York Times Magazine editor.
The tourism board was sold on the pitch—and in 2017, paid Kobold $100,000.
A quick internet search, however, would have shown that the Soarway Institute for Development does not exist. The group has no website or social media presence. The only other organisation with the ‘Soarway’ name is the Soarway Foundation, which Kobold helped found in 2015. When the Post reached out to the Soarway Foundation for comment, officials in its Pennsylvania-based office said that they had no links to any other organisations with the same name.
“The name “Soarway” was Mr Kobold’s creation. It is not copyrighted and the Soarway Foundation cannot control how it is used,” said Scott H DeLisi, executive director and former US ambassador to Nepal, who according to Kobold is part of the fire truck expedition. “The Soarway Foundation has no legal, financial, or any other connection to any other entity that might use the name Soarway.”
Officials at the tourism board said Kobold’s self-described relationship with the Kathmandu elite and his self-created persona in the media as a do-gooder for Nepal influenced the board’s decision to greenlight the proposal without any homework.
“He came highly recommended,” said Deepak Raj Joshi, CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board, during an interview with the Post. “Many people, including Nepal’s ambassador to the United States, vouched for him and we trusted their judgement.”
In one of the recommendation letters written to the tourism board and seen by the Post, Nepal’s Ambassador to the United States Arjun Karki mentioned Kobold and the fire trucks. “[I] ... have been working closely with Michael Kobold to prepare much-needed fire engines and rescue equipment,” the letter says.
However, in a phone interview with the Post this week, Karki denied ever having knowledge of the fire truck expedition or writing the letter endorsing Kobold.
“I have never given anyone any recommendation for a contract with the Tourism Board,” Karki said.
In Kathmandu’s upper-class circles, Kobold has called the Washington-based ambassador a close friend who has assisted him with many projects. But Karki repeatedly told the Post he did not know Kobold very well, except as someone who had climbed Everest and was willing to bring donated fire trucks to Nepal.
Among other individuals who wrote recommendation letters on behalf of Kobold were United States Senator Pat Toomey, Congressman Mike Kelly and former governor of Pennsylvania Tom Corbett. The Post’s made multiple attempts to reach all three American leaders but did not receive any response.
Although the Post could not confirm if the letters written by the US officials were authentic, a reporter discovered over a dozen metal stamps that bore the official seals and signatures of various institutions and individuals—including former US ambassador to Nepal Alaina B Teplitz, the US Department of State, the US Marine Corps, Nepal Investment Bank, Nepal Investment Bank Chairman Prithvi Bahadur Pande, Park Hyatt Tokyo, and Hyatt Regency, among others—that were left abandoned in Kobold’s store at Babar Mahal.
The Post also reached out to agents of Hollywood celebrities to confirm if they had guaranteed to promote the Fire Truck Expedition. In an email response, Andrew Brettler, who represents Johnny Depp, said he was unaware of his client’s involvement in the project, and said he would pass the Post’s queries to his colleagues.
This series of false promises was only the tip of the iceberg, as a month-long investigation by the Post into Michael Kobold revealed a string of lies and exaggerations, along with untoward, and sometimes even criminal, behaviour towards people he worked with in the country.
The Post offered Kobold an opportunity to respond to the series of allegations against him, but he declined even after repeated requests. “Until the fire truck has reached its conclusion, I’m not going to do any further media,” he wrote in an email.
Kobold is no stranger to controversies. His chequered past notwithstanding, there is a slew of grievances, complaints and allegations against him in Kathmandu, ever since he arrived here in 2008.
In 2004, Kobold was deported from the US after a federal court found him guilty of willfully making false statements to a security officer at the Pittsburgh Airport. Kobold had presented a fake police badge and claimed he was a police officer when he was questioned by an airport security agent for attempting to gain access to a secured area of the airport. As part of his sentencing, he was fined $5,000, denied reentry to the US for a year, and placed on a three-year probation.
In 2012, when Kobold opened the Kobold Watch store at Kathmandu’s upscale Babar Mahal Revisited, he told a heartwarming story. While attempting to climb Everest in 2010 with his partner, two Sherpas—Ang Namgel and Lakpa Thundu—had saved the latter’s life. Touched by this gesture, Kobold had vowed to get the Sherpas out of their dangerous profession and instead, put them to work as watchmakers for his Kobold Watch Company. The plan was to eventually establish a watchmaking institute in Nepal.
Namgel and Thundu accompanied Kobold to the US in 2011, where they spent 10 months training in Pittsburgh—all of which was unpaid. Then in 2012, they came back to Nepal and established the Kobold Watch Pvt Ltd in Babar Mahal. The company was registered under Namgel and Thundu’s names.
Over the next three years, tensions grew between Kobold and the two Sherpas, who disapproved of Kobold’s profligate ways—spending lavish amounts at restaurants and hotels and billing Kobold Watch, for which the Sherpas were responsible.
In an interview with the Post, Namgel Sherpa said the final straw came when Kobold obtained a credit card from the Nepal Investment Bank under the company’s name. Once Namgel and Thundu got tired of paying Kobold’s bills, they cancelled the credit card, which, according to Namgel, led to a confrontation between the three. Kobold then asked them to sign over the company to someone else.
In the three years Namgel and Thundu had been working for Kobold, he did not pay them a single paisa, said Namgel. “Kobold used us and our names,” he said.
When asked why they did not speak up at the time, Namgel said they were afraid of Kobold’s connections with powerful people in Kathmandu and decided that no one would take a Sherpa’s word over a foreigner’s. “We are just labourers, what could we do to someone like him?” said Namgel.
Hedging their losses, Namgel and Thundu went back to climbing. In 2016, Thundu died on Ama Dablam, hit on the head by a rock dislodged by an aftershock of the 2015 earthquake. Namgel continues to climb for a living.
“We wasted four years of our life,” said Namgel, the same Sherpa whose name Kobold continues to use in various promotions, including his book “Nepal Needs Fire Trucks.”
Namgel said that Kobold never asked for his permission to use his name and image in the book. “He is not a good man.”
The Sherpas had transferred the company over to Rajani Nakarmi, who worked for Kobold for nearly six years. But earlier this year, Nakarmi abruptly decided to quit. When the Post reached Nakarmi for a comment, she said she decided to leave the company because Kobold refused to transfer the ownership of the Kobold Watch and Kobold Trading companies from her name to his.
“I was not comfortable having the companies under my name,” Nakarmi said, who defended her taking up the role in the first place because she believed it was a temporary measure. When she asked Kobold to transfer the companies to his own name, both Kobold and his lawyer told her that the process for transferring a company to a foreigner can be lengthy and complicated. They insisted that she stay on board, she said.
Nakarmi, who used to make straps for the watches at the store, describes Kobold as a “strict” person who does not entertain excuses and gets agitated when his employees miss their deadlines.
After the Sherpas’ departure from Kobold Watch, the company began to flounder. Kobold’s prime location in Babar Mahal came with a hefty rent, which Kobold was refusing to pay. Gautam Rana, the proprietor of Babar Mahal Revisited and Kobold’s landlord, said he was forced to close down Kobold’s store after the watchmaker refused to pay his outstanding rent of four months.
Rana said Kobold was not paying him even as he was staying at Kathmandu’s Hyatt Regency, one of the premier hotels where the nightly rate begins at $199.
“When I told him if he knew the consequences for his actions had he been in the United States, he told me, ‘Well, this is not America’,” Rana said, recalling his conversation with Kobold. “After that, I lost it.”
But Kobold’s refusal to pay his rent at Babar Mahal isn’t an isolated incident. Over the years, he has accumulated dozens of outstanding bills across the country which he has repeatedly refused to pay. At least three other store owners within Babar Mahal Revisited told the Post that Kobold owed them money for purchases he had made over a year ago. Attempts to collect the debts had been summarily rebuffed by Kobold using various excuses and pretexts.
Earlier this March, Kobold, accompanied by actress Manisha Koirala and Hollywood actor Malcolm McDowell, stayed at the Xanadu Hotel in Jomsom as part of their “reconnaissance expedition” which Kobold described as a pre-promotion event for the Nepal Fire Truck Expedition. Kobold also rented an SUV with the hotel’s assistance for the duration of his two-day stay. Then he left without paying his bills, according to the hotel’s owner.
“He said he was going to the airport to check his flight status,” said Shishir Uprety of Xanadu Hotel. “But he never came back.”
Uprety attempted to reach Kobold on his mobile to collect the payment but Kobold stopped answering calls from the hotel number, Uprety said. Once when Uprety was able to get through to him using a personal number, Kobold instead berated him, he said.
“He told me he knew how Nepalis are, always trying to overcharge and rip him off,” said Uprety. Kobold has not paid Uprety anything until date.
The list goes on. Filmmaker Sisan Baniya, who worked with Kobold on a documentary—yet to be released—in 2015, said he has also not been paid for his work.
“Initially he made grand promises, he told me ‘you’ll be a millionaire’ after this project,” Baniya said in a phone interview. “But when I asked him for my payment, he claimed I was demanding too much because he knew how much an average person makes in Nepal.”
Kobold has used the documentary, which has yet to be produced, to market his campaign and ask for money, promising promotion through the film on a number of foreign television networks.
The Fire Truck Expedition, according to Kobold’s official website, was an idea conceived by him and his friend, the late actor James Gandolfini. But in 2013, after Gandolfini passed away, Kobold began marketing the project as a tourism campaign for Nepal, soliciting money through crowdfunding campaigns and grant proposals.
Many Nepali publications, including the Post, have since published a series of reports on Kobold’s campaign. Kobold also occasionally wrote columns for the Nepali Times—an influential English weekly published out of Kathmandu. In one of those columns, he wrote about how former diplomats and US Navy Seals were part of the project to bring the fire trucks to Nepal. Kobold used the publicity to ask for money.
It’s unclear how much money he has raised so far in the name of the expedition.
Apart from the $100,000 paid by the tourism board, Kobold also received $20,000 from Waling Municipality Office in Syangja earlier this year. In return for money, Waling Municipality was promised one firefighting truck and a feature in a documentary that would be filmed during the expedition.
As in the case of the tourism board officials, Waling Mayor Dilip Kumar Khand didn’t need much convincing to be sold on Kobold’s promises. Officials greenlit the proposal and a contract was signed in March, between Waling Municipality and Nepal Experience Films, another company set up by Kobold’s aide Roshan Ghimire only two weeks prior to the signing. The company, according to the deal, is based in Babar Mahal Revisited but when the Post visited the premises, there was no office for a company with that name.
“The programme includes two separate road trips involving international celebrities, VIPs and adventurers. These road trips will be subjects of two documentary films and three one-hour long segments for PBS in the United States,” part of the agreement with Waling Municipality reads.
The expedition, which was first set to take place in 2015, has been repeatedly delayed. In the past, Kobold has cited the 2015 earthquake, bureaucratic hassles in getting permits for the shipment, and loss of sponsorship as causes for the delay.
But he regularly posts updates about the fire truck expedition on his Facebook page in what read like attempts to assure people that the expedition is still on.
Last month, Kobold posted photos of a group of Nepali firefighters adorned in new gear with a caption that said: “18 firefighters and paramedics from Belgium, Italy and the UK are in Nepal at the moment with one common goal: to train Nepalese firemen and make Nepal a safer place for everyone….. These chaps are doing a wonderful job for Nepal and they’re part of the firetruck expedition.”
But when the Post asked the Belgian firefighting team about their work in Nepal, they said they had nothing to do with Kobold’s campaign.
“I just heard about him a month ago,” said Johan Schotts, the coordinator of the Belgian team, whose friend had sent him a picture of Kobold’s book about his expedition.
Schotts said his team is part of the “Firefighters 4 Nepal” campaign, an initiative started in 2012 by a group of Belgian firefighters to support their counterparts in Nepal with equipment and training.
John Aitchison, leader of the UK team, also denied Kobold had anything to do with his team’s involvement in training Nepali firefighters.
Kobold had been promising that the fire trucks would arrive in Nepal by December. In a Facebook post last month, Kobold announced that the first of five trucks would be shipped to Calcutta—the port of entry before a shipment leaves for Nepal—and thanked the Danish shipping line Maersk for their support. Earlier this month, he took to Facebook again, this time to announce that the trucks would be arriving in Calcutta at the end of this month.
The Post called the shipping line’s sales manager for Nepal and Bhutan, based in Kathmandu. Officials there said the company had yet to reach any agreement for the shipping of the fire trucks.
“We’re still in the process of estimating costs,” said Saurabh Saxena, Maersk sales manager. “Only after we’ve agreed on the quotes and received a letter of commitment from the Nepal Tourism Board assuring us that they’ll pay for the shipment, will we begin the shipping process.”
Saxena said he has not spoken with any officials from the tourism board but had been assured by Kobold that the Board would be paying for the shipment.
Joshi, the CEO of Nepal Tourism Board, said Kobold had come back to his office saying he had lost his sponsors and wanted the government to pay for the shipment of the trucks.
“He even banged on the table when demanding the money, but we told him we couldn’t pay him more than what we had already committed,” Joshi said.
When the Post wrote a second email to Kobold presenting him an opportunity to comment, he said: “I can assure you that you’ll have a positive surprise if you hold the story until the fire trucks are on the ship or a very negative one if you run the story without waiting for this to happen.”
Hours after sending that email, Kobold posted another update on Facebook: the trucks would now be arriving in Spring 2019.