Ptech workers tell the story behind the search

It started with an e-mail tip from a former employee. It ended with Ptech Inc.'s reputation in tatters.

The former employee, who had once managed government sales operations for the company, had seen a CNN story about possible links between Saudi businessmen and terrorist financing. Aware that a Saudi businessman, Yassin al-Qadi, had once invested in Ptech, the employee tipped off the FBI.

Thus, on the night of Dec. 5, 2002, FBI agents showed up at Ptech in Quincy, Mass., and asked CEO Oussama Ziade for permission to look into his company's financial dealings with al-Qadi.

Al-Qadi, a wealthy Saudi businessman who, like many others in his country, had investments in various high-tech companies in the U.S., had been one of Ptech's start-up "angel" investors in 1994. At no time, however, was he a Ptech investor of record.

Ziade told Computerworld in an interview that he was happy to assist the FBI. In return, the Bureau and the U.S. Customs Service pledged to be careful not to let word of their visit leak to the media. They parked their cars away from Ptech's building so as not to raise suspicions, and Ziade escorted them in one by one through a back door.

"The night of the search, we met with the federal authorities for a few hours in our lawyer's office, where we were told that neither Ptech nor its employees or officers are the target of the investigation," said Ziade.

Ziade explained his relationship with al-Qadi. "I don't know him well," Ziade said. "I met him a few times and talked to him a few times on the telephone. He never talked to me about violence. Instead, he talked very highly of his relationship with [former President] Jimmy Carter and [Vice President] Dick Cheney."

Ziade said he then told investigators that al-Qadi had been a member of the board of directors of another company that had invested in Ptech when it was first starting in 1994. Ptech's first investment had come from venture capitalists in New Jersey, he said.

Ziade, who came to the U.S. in 1985 from Lebanon and had contacts throughout the Middle East, made his first trip to Saudi Arabia in 1995 seeking additional funding for his young company. He had been told there was venture capital to be had there, so that's where he went.

It was then that he met with al-Qadi and one of the largest investment bankers in Saudi Arabia. To his surprise, half a dozen other U.S. software and technology companies were there also looking for money.

"When I was there, I attended a fundraiser for five different American companies," Ziade said. "There were investors there with common investments in dozens of U.S. companies." The companies, he said, are household names in the U.S. high-tech industry, though he declined to name them.

Ziade was unsuccessful in persuading al-Qadi to invest more money in Ptech. And when he approached the Saudi businessman a year later, he was told to look for investors in the U.S. Al-Qadi had given up on the company.

In 1999, Ptech made another big push to raise more money -- and once again approached al-Qadi. Ziade and his executives, many of them Americans dressed in typical American garb, went back to Saudi Arabia to brief al-Qadi and others on the company's progress. When they finished, al-Qadi promised an additional $3 million. The money never materialized.

By the time Ziade finished explaining his relationship with al-Qadi, the search was over. It was early morning on Dec. 6. At 7 a.m., the parking lot began to fill with media vans, reporters and photographers who learned of the probe. Headlines that morning used the word raid. Some even suggested that Ptech employees had been arrested, which was untrue.

Life quickly became a prison for Ziade and some of his employees. "I could not sleep in my house for three days," he said. "It was ambushed by the media. And I couldn't send my kids to school for a week."

One of Ptech's salesmen, who worked out of a home office in Chicago, had a tougher time. The media began describing his home as the local headquarters of al-Qaeda, said Ziade. "He had to put his baby and wife in the car and leave his house. His neighbors began to look at him differently. He was scared, and he had nowhere to go."

Ptech's legal counsel, David Dryer, said he had called the FBI several times before the search to offer Ziade's assistance but never got a response. "The scary thing is that this can happen to anybody," said Dryer. He said the perception is that "today, any Muslim is part of the fifth column, and they're going to blow us up."

Ziade, a graduate of Boston University and Harvard, said he is a loyal American. "My mother's family came here in the 1950s and died here, and I have two uncles that came here and died here. We love the country, the culture and the liberty. This is my country."

Former Ptech employees describe Ziade as an open-minded boss who encouraged diversity in the workplace and the sharing of individual cultures and traditions.

"There was a very open environment at Ptech," said Michael Goff, a former systems administrator at the company.

Hayden Schultz, a former principal engineer at the company, said there were no political undertones in the working environment -- although when Ptech started a 401(k) investment program, the biggest concern among employees was that they have a socially responsible fund that didn't invest in tobacco or anything antienvironment.

So how did the Ptech story blow up? Lisa Dames, a former technical writer for the company, blamed "racism in the media."

Dryer agreed: "We're about to go to war in Iraq. And it's important to have a boogeyman in your backyard. We now have a boogeyman in Quincy."

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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