Forged contracts, the Arctic, undersea internet cables — those are just some of the ingredients that went into cooking up a crazy $1 billion scam.
It took just one person to create all the chaos that ensued. Initial intentions may have been good, but the means of reaching her goal landed one former telecommunications executive in prison.
The wild story behind an Alaskan company executive’s massive fraud attempt is part sea yarn, part corporate intrigue and a whole lot of incompetence. Gather round as we tell you the story of Quintillion Subsea Holdings.
Fraud under the ice
Quintillion Subsea Holdings is an Alaska-based startup created to facilitate one mission: to build a fiber-optic internet cable line in the freezing waters below the Arctic ice to bring affordable and reliable internet service to Alaska.
Eventually, the goal is to service parts of Japan, the Pacific Northwest, Greenland, Iceland and London as well.
Elizabeth Pierce, Quintillion’s CEO at the time, needed investors for the obviously ambitious and expensive enterprise, but to get them she had to show the company had already completed several contracts.
So, Pierce fudged facts on outstanding contracts, made up others and forged signatures. If the contracts had been real, they would have totaled more than $1 billion.
On top of that, she was bilking small investors out of thousands of dollars to fund her lifestyle. In a feature story on Bloomberg, former colleagues look back and wonder how Pierce ever thought she would be able to get away with forging the names of executives from other companies.
She was hardly a criminal mastermind — she put the contracts on her personal Google Drive and wouldn’t let any other employees see the supposed agreements. When the walls were closing in, Pierce tried to cover her tracks by simply dumping the digital documents in her Google Drive’s trash folder.
The scam began in 2015 and ended in 2017, with Pierce resigning as Quintillion’s CEO. She was charged with fraud in 2018 and, after a year of court proceedings, Pierce surrendered to authorities. She is now serving five years in a federal penitentiary in Texas.
Opening a new market
Because all sea stories turn into allegories…as Quintillion’s lies began to unravel in 2017, the task of laying down the fiber-optic cable took a perilous turn. A Quintillion vessel, Ile de Batz, had been laying cable along the legendarily inhospitable Northwest Passage.
But the ship’s excavator had dug too deep in the hard-clay seabed. If Quintillion’s workers didn’t fix the problem fast, the surrounding waters would soon freeze and trap the ship.
On land, George Tronsrue, Quintillion’s interim CEO, found himself cleaning up Pierce’s mess, while also focusing on getting the Ile de Batz out of danger. He completely succeeded on one front, the Ile de Batz, and continues damage control on the other.
Despite her dissembling, Pierce’s plans for Quintillion may actually have kickstarted a viable new market. Quintillion did manage to lay some cable that has led to internet improvements in Alaska. In addition, two other telecom companies have announced multimillion-dollar plans to lay Arctic cables as well.