Former CFO for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Faces Fraud Charges

In November 2008, there were a few things that Cameron Potter said he missed about his native Australia: warm weather at Christmas; the traditional Boxing Day barbecue; and his family and friends back in Ocean Grove, a seaside tourist town in the southeastern state of Victoria.

But overall, according to an article that month in the Geelong Advertiser, an Australian newspaper that had tracked down some local expatriates to hear about their lives overseas, Potter was happy in East Tennessee. He was living in New Market with his wife, an East Tennessee native, and three children (a stepdaughter and two sons). He was a fan of the "traditional Southern breakfast, consisting of sausage, eggs, and biscuit and gravy." And he was working as "fiscal director" for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Still, he admitted, "Living more than 10,000 miles from where I grew up and from where my parents currently live is tough and I find myself homesick this time of year."

It might be a long time before Potter, who is 39, sees Australia again. Earlier this month, he was indicted in federal court on 10 counts of wire fraud and eight counts of money laundering, all related to an alleged scam in which he used fake invoices to bilk the government and his employer of more than $147,800. He was arrested Jan. 14 by agents of the U.S. Department of Energy, through which SACE has numerous grants and contracts.

Potter has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His attorney, Don Bosch, did not return a call for comment.

SACE is best-known locally for its persistent environmental watchdogging of the Tennessee Valley Authority, but it also works on clean energy, efficiency, and transportation policy at local and regional levels. It is based in Knoxville, with offices in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. (It recently moved its Knoxville office from a longtime home on Gay Street to a building on Middlebrook Pike.)

Stephen Smith, executive director of SACE, said he couldn't comment on the details of Potter's employment or indictment while the case is pending. But, he said, "SACE is appreciative of the U.S. attorney's work here in this investigation, and we are confident that all the funds will be restored."

Much of Potter's story is not clear from the public record, including how and when he first came to East Tennessee. But the indictment and that newspaper profile present a partial portrait of a man who apparently talked about one life while living another. He told the Geelong Advertiser that he moved to the United States in 1991, the year he turned 20. He also described himself as "a part-time actor," citing appearances on the TV comedy show Scrubs and a role in Steven Soderbergh's film The Informant. A short listing for him in the Internet Movie Database includes a few publicity photos, of the actor's-head-shot variety, plus a picture of him posing with Zach Braff, the star of Scrubs. But IMDb doesn't actually list any Scrubs credits for him and includes only three entries: an uncredited appearance as "Businessman" in The Informant, and bit parts in two low-budget horror films from 2009, Witchmaster General and Grave Danger.

According to the indictment, Potter worked as chief financial officer at SACE from February 2006 to May 2009. In that position he had access to the accounts of an organization that is larger than many Knoxvillians might realize. The 990 nonprofit tax form SACE filed in 2009 showed 44 employees and an annual budget of nearly $3.5 million. Potter's alleged embezzling began almost immediately—the first count cited dates from May 3, 2006.

The charging document lays out the following scheme:

First, it says, Potter created PayPal accounts for fictitious businesses with names similar to those of legitimate businesses that had worked with SACE. Then he filed false invoices with SACE on behalf of the fictitious businesses. As CFO, he paid the invoices to the fake companies' accounts, charging them to a SACE American Express card that he was not authorized to use. Then he paid the resulting American Express bills from SACE's own funds, some of which had come through grants and contracts from the Department of Energy. Finally, he moved the money from the fake companies' PayPal accounts into his own bank account.

The money laundering counts in the indictment involve things Potter allegedly purchased with his purloined funds, including a used Mercedes Benz, a used Lexus, and a single-family house in Decatur, Ga.

Potter was released on his own recognizance after his arrest and arraignment. His trial has been set for March 23 before U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison for each count of wire fraud and 10 years for each count of money laundering, plus fines that could total millions of dollars, and the forfeiture of personal property including cars and cash.