Neil Fisher has promised Baltimore a Ritz-Carlton, and the city has embraced him. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the Baltimore Development Corp., local business leaders and the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association all say they want the hotel built.
And all say they know little, if anything, about Fisher's recent career.
That's because hardly anyone bothered to check. No one examined the full record of his path to Baltimore -- a trail that winds through bankruptcy court, a tangled Orlando, Fla., hotel deal and two Miami hotel projects be-ing managed by a convicted felon.
No city or business leader learned that Fisher's North American Doctors Investment Fund, identified by Fisher as a major real estate investment trust developing the Ritz-Carlton, is little more than a shell that emerged from bankruptcy last year.
No one discovered that Fisher is a paper pauper without assets in his name, that his longtime partner John R. "Jack" Quinn was convict-ed of real estate securities fraud and that Fisher and Quinn owe $2 million for a Maryland civil fraud judgment.
No city official or community activist apparently managed to secure his resume. Residents groups say they don't believe anyone even obtained his business card.
"I don't think anyone ever asked for one," says Dave Marshall, former president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "In retrospect, it seems kind of crazy."
But from Florida to Baltimore, hopefulness has eased Fisher's way: a hotel chain eager to expand, cities demanding five-star lodging and development, and a Key Highway property owner wanting to spark development. Given those circumstances, Fisher's veneer of wealth and glib style have given him instant credibility.
Friends and associates seem to see in Fisher whatever qualities they would like, no matter how contradictory those characteristics may be.
To some, Fisher appears shy and soft-spoken. To others, loud and obnoxious. He is alternately described as straightforward and devious, gentle and tough, rich enough to live in palm Beach, Fla., and so poor he couldn't pay his rent.
Fisher sometimes adds to the confusion. In an interview, he said firmly, as he does on his resume, that he is a "successful developer" -- only to later insist, "I'm not a developer I hate the building end of the business."
Struggling financially after the Maryland fraud judgment and a failed development in Tampa, Fla., Fisher began in late 1995 to resurrect his career, with three moves that helped him get into the hotel game.
He filed for personal bankruptcy protection. He moved to the Palm Beach area of south Florida. And in 1996, he married Tamara Jeanne "T.J." Mize, who describes herself in Florida society pages as an actress, director, real estate developer and author of an unpublished novel, "The Pearly Gates of Purgatory."
The bankruptcy offered him a chance to restructure his finances and make himself judgment-proof. His house is owned by a corporation, TJ Palm Investments # 1 Inc., and the cars in his driveway are leased.
His marriage provided him with a business partner without a tarnished past. When Fisher reincorporated the North American Doctors Investment Fund in 1996 -- a name Fisher last used in the early 1980s -- he listed his wife, but not himself, as owner.
Fisher maintains that his wife is "independently wealthy" from the sale of her novel and "funds me to allow me to go out and play a little bit" in real estate. Mrs. Fisher declined to be interviewed.
Despite his explanation of his wife's wealth, the couple has had an up-and-down financial history.
They had a lavish candlelight wedding ceremony in Aspen, Colo. -- guests were taken to the church in horse-drawn carriages -- but two months later they failed to pay their rent on a Palm Beach home.
"Very strange people, the Fishers," says David A. Jaynes, who represented their landlord in eviction proceedings against them. The landlord's lawsuit claims the Fishers took two animal paintings -- one called "Monkey General," the other "Levitating Leopard" -- from the wails of the home, an allegation Fisher forcefully denies. "I don't know what Mr. Fisher is building now," says Jaynes, "but last year, they were having very basic cash flow problems."
But despite housing and financial troubles, Fisher's move to Palm Beach had a distinct business advantage. It gave him easy access to developer-friendly south Florida, where few people knew of his past problems.
Fisher says he immediately set his sights on the hotel business because he saw that banks and investors were eager to put cash into lodging projects at a time of growing business. Looking for deals with his partner Quinn, Fisher traded on contacts in New York.
His firmest commitment -- and the business relationship that would lead him to Ritz-Carlton -- came during a spring 1997 conversation with a man named Domenico Rabuffo.