Cameron Frye Has a Big Idea
If Cameron Frye's arms were legs, he'd walk a hundred miles a day. Windmilling, they work like giant exclamation points in sync with Frye's voice, which he modulates according to the ever-changing topic at hand: the 43 times he's seen Phantom of the Opera, his federal indictment for insurance fraud, his newly unveiled plan to revitalize downtown by building a basketball arena and a first-of-its-kind multipurpose stadium with a retractable roof. The more excited he grows, the more frequently he exhibits a slight facial tic, which makes it seem as if he's constantly winking.
It's the stadium idea that has landed Frye in the local spotlight. Inclined to splashy gestures, he staged a June 21 press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to present his grand vision for downtown's dormant east side. Crafted by the prestigious Toronto architectural firm RAN International, the plan includes 12 new hotels arrayed around a central park, an "entertainment precinct" complete with a virtual reality theme park, a large underground parking zone and a huge "gateway" complex of office towers and retail space spanning Highway 59.
The plan's centerpiece is the stadium Frye says would resolve the city's ongoing sports-facility dilemma. To overcome the perception that multipurpose stadiums can't fulfill their functions as well as those dedicated to a single sport, RAN came up with a radical design -- baseball and football fields would slide in and out of the building on giant tracks, and the interior could be reconfigured any number of ways to create optimal conditions for football, baseball, concerts or other uses. The total price is pegged at $395 million.
Frye has promised to return in July with a financing package for the stadium; that package would mark the first phase in the overall plan. Citing the RAN-designed Sky Dome in Toronto as an example, he says the stadium will serve as a magnet for subsequent development. "Build it, and they will all come," he says expansively, arms reaching skyward.
The response from official circles has been lukewarm at best. Mayor Bob Lanier initially dismissed the multipurpose idea as unworkable, and County Judge Robert Eckels remains committed to locating a new baseball stadium near the Astrodome. Both guardedly say they're open to other ideas and would entertain discussions with Frye at a later date, but they're pressing forward with their own agenda. "I think we'll have a solid plan," says Eckels, who will present the basics by the end of this month.
Frye, who paid RAN $100,000 to design the redevelopment plan and says he's spent another $50,000 to cover expenses, believes the public should decide not only whether to build a new stadium or two, but where the facilities should go. Like many who have voiced their opinions on the matter, he says only one location really makes sense: downtown. And he's willing to keep spending money to trumpet that message until someone takes notice. "It's the very best thing for Houston," he says. "I think it's so obvious."
Okay. But who the hell is Cameron Frye?
The offices of Worldwide Insurance Coordinators and Consultants Ltd. have been on the 42nd floor of the Farb Building, the last skyscraper outpost heading west on San Felipe, for ten years. Founder, chairman and CEO Cameron Frye moved there shortly after he started the business, which was originally called North American Health Insurance Coordinators Inc. His modest apartment in the Mirage complex is visible from his office window, just a couple of blocks away.
Frye and his employees work in style. A sauna, tanning bed and shower are available in a back corner if anyone feels a need to unwind. Reflecting the boss' tastes, the interior is all plush black leather and wood with dashes of red here and there. Phantom of the Opera memorabilia crowds tabletops, and framed photos of Frye with Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Dan Quayle sit prominently in his office alongside his certificate of life membership in the Republican Presidential Task Force, though he says his sympathies lie more with the Democratic Party. In the conference room, "PUT IT DOWNTOWN" scrolls repeatedly across the screen of an electronic message board.
Though he's the sole stockholder of an obviously successful enterprise, Frye has been generous with the profits. He's flown his employees en masse to London, Hawaii and Toronto for company vacations. A theater buff, he'll occasionally treat his entire staff to a play -- in New York or Los Angeles -- that especially grabs him. "If he sees something that is entertaining and interesting, he wants to share it with people," says Mike DeGeurin, his attorney since 1987.
On the jaunt to London, Frye obtained tickets to Phantom of the Opera and was captivated by the production. So captivated, in fact, that he has since seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 43 times. "That may be a little wacko," he allows. "But I do things that I like. I like seeing Phantom of the Opera."
Frye even formed a company, North American Ticket Outlet, solely to buy tickets to the Los Angeles production of Phantom starring Michael Crawford. Frustrated by an inability to purchase weekend orchestra seats, he couldn't understand why ticket brokers had them available -- at four times the list price.
Eventually he discovered that every Wednesday, unbeknown to the general public, a batch of tickets would be sold for a week of performances months down the line; brokers scooped up the tickets. On the sly, Frye undertook a seven-month campaign to purchase and stockpile the tickets, accumulating almost $1 million worth.
When the dates of the shows finally arrived, he placed ads in the Los Angeles Times that read "Are You Tired of Being Screwed by the Scalpers?" and seriously undercut the going resale price. "I became angry," he explains. "I became an advocate for Americans who wanted to see Phantom but didn't want to mortgage their house to get four tickets."
The Phantom has dropped the curtain in L.A., so Frye's out of the ticket business now, but he still maintains two toll-free phone numbers as mementos: 1-800-THE-PHANTOM and 1-800-THE-OPERA.
Despite the relaxed environment in the office -- Frye himself likes to wear shorts and odd leisure footwear at work -- the 22 employees stay busy on the phones and at keyboards, typing insurance claim forms and other paperwork. Worldwide represents health-care consumers, most of whom have received alternative treatments for cancer or other serious illnesses in Mexico or overseas. They hire Worldwide to shepherd reimbursement claims through their own insurance companies. "We're just as important as the doctors," Frye says with the same passion he displays when discussing his stadium proposal. "If you cannot afford the treatment, you cannot take treatment. And you die, period."
While many health-care professionals ridicule alternative treatments as quackery, thousands of Americans travel to Mexico every year to seek them. Some have tried conventional therapies with limited or no success; others believe in the alternatives or simply don't trust traditional medicine.
Frye is one of the believers. In 1981, his mother was diagnosed with colon cancer so advanced that she was given just a few weeks to live. The doctors the family consulted in its hometown of Windsor, Ontario, said there was nothing they could do. Then Frye saw a Geraldo interview with Stanislaw Burzynski, a Houston doctor who was developing an alternative cancer treatment. Carrying his mother's blood and urine samples, "I got on the next plane down," Frye says.
Burzynski met with Frye and expressed pessimism about his mother's chances, but agreed to provide treatment. Several family members set up camp in Houston for the next two months, and to obtain better access to the physician, Frye began volunteering for Burzynski. Though his mother died two months after her arrival, Frye returned to the clinic a week after the funeral as the doctor's public relations director. "The loss of my mother to me and my family was the most tragic experience in our collective lives," he says. "I became obsessed with helping other Mary Fryes who were dying of cancer."
A little more than a year later, Frye discovered the big downside of alternative medicine: the establishment doesn't like it. In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sued Burzynski for treating his patients with antineoplaston, a drug not approved by the agency. Named along with the doctor was Frye, who the agency charged was illegally shipping antineoplaston across state lines. "So the guy doesn't have FDA approval," Frye recalls as his initial reaction. "What's the FDA?"
Though the government was more interested in Burzynski, Frye accepted an offer of deferred adjudication. But the doctor beat the rap, and Frye believes that the government has been after the two of them ever since. "What the Justice Department wanted was to shut [Burzynski] down," he says. "What the Justice Department didn't get was what it wanted. They've harassed me ever since."
If this sounds a little paranoid, consider the next phase of Frye's career in the alternative medicine field. In the course of his four years with Burzynski, he became acquainted with a number of alternative practitioners and noted a common problem: the patients went through hell getting their insurance claims paid. Though many policies had clauses prohibiting reimbursement for unproven or experimental treatments, other care associated with the treatment did qualify. But the insurers routinely rejected such claims anyway, and the complexities of dealing with foreign clinics made collecting an almost impossible burden. "The insurance companies have made millions of dollars off the cancer patients who have gone to Mexico," Frye states. "Their game is to deny the claims."
So Frye began to navigate the paperwork maze on behalf of Burzynski's clients, and in 1985 he split off and formed his own company, North American Health Insurance Coordinators (NAHIC), to do nothing but process claims.
It wasn't long before the feds were back on his trail. A 1987 Los Angeles Times article on NAHIC reported that the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force in Houston was investigating the company for various improprieties, including overbilling and concealing the experimental nature of the treatments.
On September 4, 1990, the FBI raided NAHIC's office and confiscated thousands of files, including almost all client records. Frye says that the agents expected to find a boiler-room operation, not the sumptuous digs of a legitimate business, and brought only four boxes to carry the files. "They had to get a bunch more boxes," he says.
With the cooperation of his clients, the clinics and some salvaged computer files, Frye managed to piece together his records and stay in business. Four years passed with no action, and NAHIC continued with its business of filing claims and collecting payments on behalf of patients. The original files have never been returned.
It took four years for the government to move again. On February 18, 1994, Frye and two employees were indicted for insurance fraud. In the indictment, the government ontended that NAHIC's principal business was "the filing of false and fraudulent claims for benefits under policies of health insurance."
Frye was placed in jail and eventually released on a $1 million bond. But the U.S. Attorney's office argued that as a Canadian, Frye posed a flight risk, so he was forced to live in a halfway house on Shepherd for two months. In addition, he was barred from managing NAHIC or having any contact with his own employees -- a clear attempt, he says, to put him out of business. "They wanted to shut me down."
Nevertheless, the business stayed afloat during his absence, and Frye eventually won the right to return to work and to his apartment. The case is currently scheduled for trial next January. Both sides say they're ready.
Assistant U.S. Attorney George Tallichet couldn't comment on the case, instead referring the Press to the indictment, which alleges 11 cases of wrongdoing, including filing claims in excess of the amount actually charged by the clinics.
Frye finds the charges more than dubious. "They took thousands of files and kept them for four years," he says, pounding his fist into his palm. "They only come up with 11 cases. And we continue to file thousands of claims a year" that are paid by the very insurance companies he allegedly scammed.
Attorney Mike DeGeurin also finds the paucity of evidence telling, especially since the indictment claims that the primary function of the business was to defraud. Eleven rather small discrepancies that could have a variety of explanations hardly add up against thousands of claims the companies have paid over the years. "They painted themselves into a corner on that one," DeGeurin says.
In addition, says Frye, he's never been sued by an insurance company for fraud, though the companies have teams of investigators to uncover false claims. "If I'm doing something wrong," he says, "the insurance industry should be suing me, not the Justice Department."
Frye doesn't mind spending his money. Pulling a recent bank statement from a cabinet, he flips to a number of hefty entries totaling $120,000, gifts to his younger relatives for their college educations (he himself dropped out of high school after the tenth grade). It's not an insignificant share of his wealth, which he estimates at between $10 million and $12 million, much of it inherited from the family shipping business in Ontario. "We share," he explains.
He pulls out a canceled check to RAN International for $100,000. Last March, inspired by the debate on the future of Houston's sports franchises, Frye decided on his own to approach the Canadian firm, which had designed Toronto's multipurpose Sky Dome. "I'm a sports fan," he says, noting that he's had season tickets for all the local teams, "even the Texas Terror."
At first, the RAN people were hesitant to respond. After all, some guy they'd never heard of was calling with what seemed a rather large request: to develop a comprehensive plan for the downtown area of the fourth largest city in the U.S. But when Frye flew to meet them and plopped a six-figure check on the table, they decided to give the idea a whirl.
Frye emphasizes that the resulting proposals are but one possibility, and that he's floating them as much to stimulate debate as anything. And he recognizes that the plan is sketchy on detail, especially on the financing end, though he's trying to piece together a group of private investors in Canada and the U.S. "We're working on that," he says.
Getting private investors to front the money for the stadium seems like a pipe dream. And Frye exhibits an almost charming naivete about the heavy politics behind the stadium machinations. For example, he believes that all the franchise owners (including Bud Adams) can sit down together, patch their differences and work together for the good of the citizenry. "There is no room for petty jealousy around here," he declared at his press conference.
But if he can rustle some private investment, which doesn't seem to be part of the Lanier-Eckels effort, it would certainly change the equation. Private dollars would strengthen the argument for a downtown location, which is generally estimated to cost at least $100 million more than the Astrodome option.
As it stands, however, the odds favor an up-or-down referendum on a new baseball stadium across from the Astrodome, and yet another major renovation of that aging structure -- possibly in conjunction with or followed by a vote on a downtown basketball arena.
Frye says that would be a terrible mistake. And he's not alone: most of the public calls for new facilities urge a downtown location. In any case, he says, "It's wrong not to let the people decide where they go."
As with most everything he does, Frye's approach to the stadium issue is on the eccentric side. "I accept the fact that I'm different, I guess," he says, picking little pieces of debris off his office carpet. And if someone else grabs the downtown ball and runs with it, he says he'll be happy to bow out of the picture. Until then, however, he's approaching the task the same way he approaches alternative medicine or Phantom of the Opera -- with an almost obsessive belief that it's the right thing to do. "Is the proposal crazy, or is the guy who's proposing it crazy?" he asks. "I think I'm the one who could be classified as a little off.
"The proposal's not wacko," he adds. "It's perfecto.
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