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Wind farm developer faces lawsuit

LACON – The lead developer of a proposed Toluca-area wind farm due for consideration Thursday by the Marshall County Board is accused in a Texas lawsuit of investment-related fraud, the Journal Star has learned.

Tiskilwa-based Stewardship Energy LLC did not pay a Houston investment firm at least $250,000 for helping to arrange financing through a company that is now a partner with Stewardship in the local project, according to court documents.

The suit was filed last year in Harris County District Court in Houston by Vert Investment Group LLC. The suit alleges Stewardship contracted for financing assistance with “false promises of payment so that Vert would source financing for Stewardship’s projects for ‘free.’ ”

Stewardship, which has developed other small wind projects elsewhere, has jointly applied with Akuo Energy USA for a special use permit to construct 16 turbines of 2.5 megawatts each in a rural area southeast of Toluca. The Marshall County Zoning Board of Appeals voted 5-0 last month to recommend the permit, and the County Board is slated to make a final decision Thursday.

The subject of litigation was briefly mentioned at the ZBA hearing, when Chairman Bill Campion pointed out that a Texas law firm had called to inquire about Stewardship’s activities in Illinois. Stewardship President Matthew Kauffman brushed the question off by saying it only involved his firm in Tiskilwa.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with this (Toluca) project,” Kauffman said that night.

There was no further discussion at the hearing. But later investigation revealed the firm to which Vert introduced Kauffman was Akuo, who has now joined Kauffmann’s company in a joint venture called Minonk Stewardship Wind LLC.

Vert’s agreement with Stewardship called for payment of at least $250,000 or a percentage of new investment, according to court documents. But after the introduction, Kauffman’s company allegedly began “circumventing Vert and cutting Vert out of the negotiations,” the four-count lawsuit contends.

Kauffman could not be reached for further comment Wednesday, but the court record in Texas indicates he is attempting to get the case dismissed partly by claiming that courts there have no jurisdiction over the matter.

“Neither Akuo nor Akuo USA is a Texas-based company,” he said in one affidavit, and contracts with Stewardship “were negotiated in Illinois and Paris, France.”

However, he had said at an earlier ZBA hearing on a meteorological tower that Akuo was based in Texas. That testimony is now part of the Texas case.