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Disconnected

Jim Edwards quickly built a long-distance-dialing empire. But he couldn't keep the distress calls on hold. Then the line went dead.

But if Edwards saw what was happening, he wasn't telling anyone. Employees came to work as usual, processed orders, tinkered with computer programs, answered customer-service calls. When payday rolled around on November 15, everyone took home their checks, which bounced. A week later the majority received pink slips with their morning coffee. The rest, mostly managers, kept coming to work, though they had nothing to do.

He canceled the Christmas party, but Edwards still wasn't giving up. On December 7 Apollo Paper CFO Greg Raindl was told that payments on the $24,000 his company was owed would begin in February. Several weeks later Edwards told Susan Christian of the city parks department that BCI would at some point come up with the $150,000 still owed on sponsorships. "They have said they're going to pay us, whatever that means," Christian says.

In early December Edwards began negotiating with Equalnet Communications Corporation, a telecommunications company that was emerging from its own financial troubles. The fact that he had nothing to offer didn't deter him. "He had a company that was going down the tubes, and he wanted to see if he could pull off a miracle and sell it for something," says Mitchell Bodian, Equalnet CEO.

A quick scan of the books convinced Bodian to back off. "It became painfully obvious that there wasn't any equity value there to buy," he says. Equalnet later purchased the customer base from RFC.

Edwards, who first denied trying to sell BCI that late in the game, says he spent most of his time during the final days trying to land jobs at Equalnet for his employees and himself after the possibility of a sale evaporated.

Managers say he went further than that -- he actually indicated that jobs would be forthcoming. "He told me we were either going to start over again or all go to Equalnet," says Alex Dancy, the former director of sales, to whom BCI owes more than $129,000.

That's what inspired Dancy, John Walsh and another sales manager to set up a table at King's Flea Market the weekend after Christmas, dishing out calling cards and invoking BCI's good name. They would have tried one of the shopping malls, but those doors were barred. "The malls were all owed money," Walsh says.

Edwards asked Dancy in mid-January to manage sales for a new long-distance company that would be run by his wife. "After what happened to BCI," Dancy says, "I told him there was no way I could do that." (Edwards says that idea is now kaput.)

Within a week human-resources director Shari Mauthner wrote the memo that allowed the remaining members of the BCI family to go home. On January 28 RFC's foreclosure became official, and BCI passed into history.

A few employees wound up at Equalnet, but Edwards wasn't one of them. He had almost negotiated a consulting contract with the company when the FCC threatened to kill the deal between Equalnet and RFC if Edwards was involved. "I wanted a job at Equalnet," he says ruefully. "I didn't get it."

In hindsight, Edwards says, maybe he should have put the company in bankruptcy back when there was something to salvage. But he still believes that if Southwestern Bell hadn't shut the spigot at the end, everything would have been all right. "If the billing had not been turned off, would I be sitting here today?" he asks. "No, we'd be heroes."

As for BCI's inability to control the purse strings, Edwards says he tried. "You can issue whatever edict you want to issue, but the enforcement is downline from you," he says. "Yes, there definitely were abuses, and action was not taken when it should have been by some of the managers."

The business plan was always fundamentally sound, he contends, but the company was the victim of hyperaggressive regulators, bad luck and, in the end, unscrupulous employees. "It didn't occur to me that people would forge orders," he says.

He'd like another job in telecommunications, but Edwards has other worries. Dancy plans a lawsuit against him that may pry open BCI's books, forcing Edwards to explain the bonus money, dubious stock transactions, family trips on the corporate jets and other personal use of company funds.

Edwards claims he paid the company back for any expenditure that wasn't business-related, including the Prince of Wales desk, which he's keeping in storage. "Most of that was done through payroll deductions," he says. But he was unable to produce records to prove it, and several employees with direct knowledge of company finances say they're not aware of his reimbursing BCI for so much as a meal.

That may interest the IRS, which can already come after him for the back taxes BCI never paid. Edwards says that amounts to $445,000, though BCI's October 31 statement puts the figure at $767,000 and counting. "It's something that quite frankly could break me for the rest of my life," he says.

The FCC is also hot on his trail. Though the agency's ability to collect the $1.12 million is doubtful, other sanctions remain a possibility, including a permanent ban on any job within the industry.

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