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Secretive Orlando firm works to free men held in Congo: Two of the three captives are from Central Florida
[May 27, 2006]

Secretive Orlando firm works to free men held in Congo: Two of the three captives are from Central Florida

(Orlando Sentinel, The (FL) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 27--In a suite in a downtown Orlando tower, AQMI Strategy Corp. provides no brochures, no business cards, no nameplate on the door. Even the receptionist is wary of visitors.

The security consulting company whose three employees are being held captive in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the doorway to a network of businesses that offer specialized, confidential services including security, computer, financial or political consulting.

Two of the three men detained while providing security for a Congo presidential candidate are from Central Florida: retired U.S. Secret Service Agent Kevin Billings, 48, of Maitland and retired Orlando police Capt. Joe Robinson, 47.

AQMI (pronounced AK-mee) is run by Orlando venture capitalist Frank Amodeo, 45, who incorporated it in October 2004 in Orlando.

On Friday, Nexia Strategy Corp., a related consulting firm that lists Amodeo and Billings among its board members, was handling crisis management and media inquiries from as far away as Britain and South Africa.

"It was strictly security for the presidential candidate," Nexia Senior Strategist Woody Johnson said. "This is the first time we've had an issue with our people being taken."

Congolese government officials said the men are suspected of plotting to overthrow the west-central African government, a charge that some think is politically motivated.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department would confirm only that consulate officials had met with three Americans being detained in Kinshasa. The third American is Seth Taylor, a subcontractor from San Diego.

Johnson said the company has received "positive feedback" during the past few days but would not give details of the negotiations.

"We've made substantial progress with Congolese authorities today," Amodeo said Friday night. "We expect the formal investigation to be concluded Monday."

He said he expects his employees to be exonerated.

AQMI, along with Nexia, is part of a network of 80 other firms linked to Mirabilis Ventures, an Orlando investment and consulting firm.

Amodeo's biography on Nexia's Web site lists him as a graduate of Emory University School of Law who has "worked with distressed businesses using sophisticated financial strategies for 25 years."

Records show he also has been involved with several investment ventures and landed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the mid-1990s.

At a charity event hosted by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer last month, Amodeo was vague about his company's work. City Commissioner Betty Wyman said she talked to him for 10 minutes and still was not clear on what he did.

Amodeo told Wyman that she would know soon: "We're going to be the next Fortune 500 company." At the event, he bid $20,000 for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, then doubled his contribution to $40,000.

Amodeo's father, Frank P. Amodeo, 66, of Orlando, was a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against five major tobacco companies. A Florida jury awarded a record $145 billion judgment to sick Florida smokers in 2000. The case, including Amodeo's $5.8 million, was thrown out by an appeals court. The case is still tied up in Florida's Supreme Court.

AQMI and group members offer "extremely sophisticated business and consulting services" that include security, information technology, marketing and financial compliance for companies involved in mergers or class-action lawsuits or that want to remain anonymous, Johnson said.

Johnson said AQMI doesn't advertise or have a Web site because it "works behind the scenes" and promises confidentiality. Its number of employees could fluctuate from as few as six or eight people to dozens or hundreds, depending on whether other contractors are hired for projects.

"This situation is hairy, and we have people all over the world" working for the company, he said.

In a large conference room at SunTrust tower, the company set up a "crisis center" with about two dozen people manning laptops and telephones around the clock. Johnson said those specialists are gathering information from governments, police agencies, organizations and charities with Africa ties, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the U.S. State Department and even word on the street in Kinshasa.

"We're talking to anybody we can talk to," he said. "And everybody -- even the White House."

AQMI was handling security for Oscar Kashala, a physician with dual U.S. and Congolese citizenship who has worked with the World Health Organization. Kashala is one of 32 candidates running for president in Congo's first free election in four decades.

Kashala was connected to AQMI by Jack Walzer, an independent political consultant in Washington, D.C. Walzer had met Kashala through a social contact and was familiar with AQMI, company spokesman Marc Middleton said. Walzer could not be reached for comment.

Billings and Robinson left Orlando on May 10 and arrived in Congo on May 13. They used their tactical-security backgrounds for duties such as mapping campaign routes, Middleton said. But AQMI also has taken credit for Kashala's recent campaign success, something Middleton suggested could have been a motivation for the detentions.

Middleton said that since hiring AQMI, Kashala had come from back in the pack to become one of the top five candidates.

None of the AQMI team was armed while in Congo. The team members watched, observed and reported. Their tools were satellite telephones and maps, he said.

Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, whose members include well-known security firms such as Blackwater, said it was not unusual for a foreign dignitary to contract with a Western security firm.

Brooks said he was not surprised to hear that the team was working without weapons. "A lot of security companies are working unarmed in Kinshasa," he said.

On May 18, Billings and Robinson had boarded a flight to Paris when they were detained with their driver, Taylor. They were initially released, but authorities took their passports and tickets, telling them to return to the airport the next morning, Middleton said. About 3 a.m. they were arrested at a private home.

More than 30 people were detained from various locations. Most were employed by the South African company Omega Risk Solutions, which was working on several projects in Congo, including helping AQMI with security logistics for Kashala.

Robinson, a married father of two, left Orlando after more than 26 years. He retired as a captain with the Orlando Police Department and had served as driver, bodyguard and law-enforcement liaison for Mayors Glenda Hood and Dyer. He was a deputy chief of staff for Dyer when he left in January to do corporate security for Mirabilis Ventures.

For years, he had conducted security-training seminars and classes for local, state, federal and foreign governments, former colleagues said.

Fred Kittinger, former chief of staff to Hood, said Robinson is engaging and quick to laugh. "My heart and prayers go to him and his family," he said. "I will not ease off worrying until he's home."

Winter Park city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard co-hosted a TV show called Inside Orlando with Robinson. She said she was not surprised he had moved on to exciting ventures.

"I'm still shocked and very concerned but am very hopeful and praying for his safe return," she said.

Billings, a 21-year veteran of the Secret Service, retired in February 2004 to become a security consultant. He worked in Iraq before becoming affiliated with Nexia and AQMI. Nexia's Web site lists him on its board of directors and as an executive officer.

In the Secret Service, Billings served on the security detail of President George W. Bush in Washington and Houston, and was a member of the agency's elite counterassault team, a SWAT team ready to repel attacks.

"Kevin was a great agent," said Ric Johnson, who retired in 2001 as special agent in charge of the Orlando office. "He was one of the best I've ever had."

"We're keeping our fingers crossed and hope that they do something diplomatically. I'm concerned about him."

Billings, who is married and has two teenage daughters, has joined his Maitland neighbors in fighting a seven-story condo project planned behind his home.

Neighbor Sue Jacobs said he is "just a great, great guy."

Mark Schlueb of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Christopher Sherman can be reached at or 407-650-6361. Jim Leusner can be reached at or 407-420-5411.

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