Tej Kohli’s name is up in lights in Paris, flashing on the walls in giant, bold type inside the new high-ceilinged headquarters of French e-sports Team Vitality, a 20-minute walk from the city’s Gare du Nord train station. Some of Europe’s top video game players, influencers, journalists and sponsors have arrived on this November day to buoyantly pay tribute to Kohli, a U.K.-based, Indian-born entrepreneur, now heralded as the lead investor in the e-sports team. Team Vitality has raised at least $37 million and scored partnership deals with Adidas, Renault, telecom firm Orange and Red Bull, with a stated goal to become the top team in European competitive gaming.
E-sports, Kohli proudly tells Forbes, “encompasses the entire spectrum of business … [and is] not very different from other things we do in technology.” His wavy mane of dark hair stands out in the room like a beacon, as he beams amid the buzz and recognition.
London is home to 55 billionaires, with more on the outskirts, and they generally fall into two camps: those who completely shun publicity, and those, like Richard Branson and James Dyson, who enthusiastically embrace it. Kohli, who lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion in leafy Henley-on-Thames, aspires aggressively to the latter. In April, Kohli told the FT’s How To Spend It supplement that, “Sometimes in business it’s important to show you can sell yourself by way of your lifestyle.” His website describes him as “Investor, Entrepreneur, Visionary, Philanthropist,” with photos of an apparent property portfolio, with about half a dozen apartment buildings in Berlin, one in India and an office tower in Abu Dhabi. He claims to be a member of two exclusive London private clubs, 5 Hertford Street and Annabels, and publicly gives tips on “foie gras … roast chicken” and places where “the steaks are huge.”
Kohli has employed a large coterie of PR consultants and actively courts the media, pushing grand visions that back up this image. In a 2013 article he wrote for The Guardian, he offers advice on how to get a job in the tech industry (“Learn to code”). In 2016 he told a Forbes contributor: “The one mission that every entrepreneur has, as a person rather than as an entrepreneur, is to extend human life.” And his Tej Kohli Foundation Twitter bio brags that “We are humanitarian technologists developing solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making direct interventions that transform lives worldwide.” A press release issued in mid December boasted of more than 5,700 of the world’s poorest receiving “the gift of sight” in 2019 at Kohli’s cornea institute in Hyderabad, India.
Kohli also aspires to be validated as a billionaire. Over the past two years, his representatives have twice reached out to Forbes to try to get Kohli included on our billionaires list, the first time saying he was worth $6 billion—more than Branson or Dyson—and neither time following up with requested details of his assets. (Kohli’s attorneys now claim that “as a longstanding matter of policy,” Kohli “does not, and has never commented on his net worth,” suggesting that his representatives were pushing for his billionaire status without his authorization.)
There may be good reason for his reticence. It turns out that Kohli—who in a July press release describes himself as “a London-based billionaire who made his fortune during the dotcom boom selling e-commerce payments software”—has a complicated past. Born in New Delhi in 1958, Kohli was convicted of fraud in California in 1994 for his central role convincing homeowners to sell their homes to what turned out to be sham buyers and bilking banks out of millions of dollars in loans. For that he served five years in prison.
Kohli then turned up in Costa Rica, where he found his way into the world of online gambling during its Wild West era in the early 2000s. He ran online casinos, at least one sports betting site, and online bingo offerings, taking payments from U.S. gamblers even after U.S. laws prohibited it, according to seven former employees. He was a demanding, sometimes angry boss, according to several of these employees.
A spokesman for Kohli confirmed that he ran an online payments company, Grafix Softech, which provided services to the online gambling industry, between 1999 and 2006—and that he acquired several distressed or foreclosed online gaming businesses as a limited part of the company’s portfolio. “At no point was any such business operated in breach of the law,” Kohli’s representative said in a statement.
Though his representative claims that Kohli has had nothing to do with Grafix since 2006, Forbes found more than a dozen online posts or references (some deleted, some still live and some on Kohli’s own website) between 2010 and 2016 that identify Kohli as the chief executive or leader of Grafix Softech—including the opinion piece that Kohli wrote for The Guardian in 2013.
Even in a world of preening tycoons, this juxtaposition—the strutting thought leader who actively gives business advice while he just as actively tries to stifle or downplay any sustained look into his business past—proves eye-opening.
According to Kohli’s back story, he grew up in New Delhi, India, and he has told the British media that he’s the son of middle-class parents. Per his alumni profile for the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (about 300 miles southeast of New Delhi), Kohli completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1980 and developed “a deep passion for technology and ethical and sustainable innovation.”
At some point, he wound up in California, and set up a “domestic stock” business called La Zibel in downtown Los Angeles. Kohli still uses the Zibel name for his real estate operations today. By the end of the 1980s, Kohli was presenting himself as a wealthy real estate investor who purchased residential properties in southern California to resell for profit. The truth, according to U.S. District Court documents, was that from March 1989 through the early 1990s Kohli, then reportedly living in Malibu, had assembled a team of document forgers and “straw buyers” to pull off a sophisticated real estate fraud.
Kohli and his coconspirator Charles Myers (also known back then as Loren Ferrari) would buy residential properties from homeowners with a combination of cash and promissory notes using a sham entity. Kohli and Myers recruited and paid fake buyers to purchase the home in a second bogus transaction, and had other coconspirators forge documents to make the fake sale look real and inflate the sale price. Kohli and his team would then take out loans in the name of the fake buyers using fraudulent paperwork, diverting the loan proceeds to themselves. The original sellers didn’t get the money they were promised.
By 1993 the game was up. Kohli and Myers pled guilty—Kohli to ten counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy in 1994. According to court filings, Kohli and Myers took out $7.5 million in fraudulent loans from banks, pocketing $2 million, and stiffed homeowners on $4 million in promissory notes. He was sentenced to 80 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $5 million in restitution to his victims. Kohli appealed his sentence in 1997 but lost. Richard Steingard, who represented Kohli while the federal criminal case was pending, says his client was legally obligated to make his victims whole, but doesn’t believe he ever did. “To my knowledge, as his former attorney, the restitution was never paid,” says Steingard. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said it does not comment on restitution payments. A spokesperson for Kohli had no comment on the conviction, prison sentence or restitution.
Lavkumar Barot, 67, was one of Kohli’s victims. In 1989, Barot responded to an ad in the Los Angeles Times from Argent Alliance Corp., where Kohli was the CEO, promising investors a 14% to 20% return in 6 months to a year (minimum investment: $10,000). Barot invested $100,000 and lost all of it. One check he got from Argent Alliance—for an interest payment of $1,500—bounced. He had to work six days a week to make up for the lost funds. Even today, as Kohli promises millions to others as a philanthropist, Barot hopes for some financial restitution from Kohli. Dennis Mahoney, 75, now lives in Honolulu. Mahoney, according to court documents, lost $446,800 to Kohli’s escrow scam—after he agreed to sell his house. Mahoney claims that he received no restitution from Kohli and only got $25,000 from a state fund that helped victims of escrow fraud. He lost his home in California and blames himself. “Naturally you look in the mirror and say—how stupid could I be,” he tells Forbes, “But that naivety was a good learning experience.” Talking of Kohli, he adds: “What you see isn’t always what you get.”
Chris Painter, a cybercrime expert who was an assistant United States attorney in Los Angeles in the 1990s, says he remembers trying the case and the “sophistication of the fraud … defrauding just about everyone, from the sellers of the properties to everyone in between.” Altogether Kohli and his cohorts scammed banks and homeowners out of more than $13 million, according to court filings.
Kohli’s alma mater bio says that in 1997, Kohli “plunged into entrepreneurship and established his own company Grafix Softech,” which specialized in e-commerce payments. The timing seems off—he was in prison until 1999.
Regardless, sometime before the turn of the millennium, Kohli headed south to Costa Rica and tells Forbes he “focused on payment solutions … interfaces and payment gateways.” Asked about the exact source of his wealth, Kohli chuckles. “We were at the right time in the right place,” he says.
The business empire that, he claims, made him a “billionaire” has variously been described by Kohli, in press releases and on his websites, as operating in e-commerce, online marketing and payments processing. But 12 former Kohli employees told Forbes that Grafix Softech and other businesses operating out of the San Jose, Costa Rica, offices of Grafix Softech, were actually running unregulated online casinos and at least one sports betting site that targeted American gamblers. A spokesperson for Kohli said that any suggestion that his business broke the law “would be wholly false.”
The gaming and sports book entities operated under names like Cool Cat, Cirrus, Virtual and Royal. The websites—some of which are still active (under unknown ownership)—were an online shop front for gamblers, who could place bets from the comfort of their sofa. The biggest target market, according to former employees and executives, was American gamblers.
At first, such marketing represented a gray zone of sorts. Then in 2006 a new U.S. law, The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (known as UIGEA), effectively prohibited online gambling—and put operators like Kohli on a collision course with the U.S. legal system if they continued to knowingly accept online bets from Americans. An archived Web page from 2015 for Cool Cat Casino links to a list of “country restrictions.” There the U.S. is curiously marked green for go: no restrictions for U.S. gamblers. While a “tips” page on the same site simply states: “Cool Cat Casino is the top online casino in the United States!”
Warwick Bartlett, chief executive of Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, tells Forbes that UIGEA put most Costa Rican gambling sites out of business. “Those that remained,” he adds, “had to come up with unique ways to counter banks not wanting to process credit card transactions.” Bartlett cites the British chief executive of BetonSports, David Carruthers, who according to court documents was arrested by U.S. authorities in July 2006 while en route to Costa Rica and sentenced to 33 months in prison as an example of the kind of sentences given to those who broke the law.
Kohli, however, was undeterred by the new legal restrictions, say former employees. Cynthia Paniagua tells Forbes she worked as a human resources consultant for Kohli’s Silver Arrow group between 2009 and 2010 in Costa Rica. She describes online casinos as the beating heart of Kohli’s businesses. “He had around 15 to 25 casino brands,” she says. Who would be the end beneficiary of a $10 bet—placed and lost—on a sports result back then? Paniagua is unambiguous: “To him. His accounts are tied to him.”
“Sometimes in business it’s important to show you can sell yourself by way of your lifestyle.”
Through a spokesman, Kohli says he has had “no role in Grafix Softech or its subsidiary interest for nearly 15 years.” However, two opinion articles written by Kohli in 2013—one of which was published in The Guardian—identified him as the chief executive of Grafix Softech. In 2014, Kohli identified himself as the CEO and owner of Grafix Softech on a news site called Emerging World. Even on the company’s own website, on an archived page called “Meet the Grafix Softech Leadership Team,” Kohli is pictured and listed as “founder and CEO of Grafix Softech.” In small print at the bottom of the page it reads, “© 1993-2013 Grafix Softech owned by Tej Kohli.”
Alexis Calderon worked for Silver Arrow and Tej Kohli in customer service between 2012 and 2014, transferring callers to the VIP team that, he claims, helped big money clients wager “literally millions of dollars” at a time on Kohli’s online casinos and games. Calderon says Silver Arrow used Canadian checks to pay gamblers their winnings and would instruct the clients to cash the checks “in small unions that don’t ask questions.”
Another former employee tells Forbes that after the law change in 2006, Kohli “doubled down … because he figured everyone was getting out of the market.” The source adds, “All his competitors were fleeing because regulation hit in, and he was like—great. Like picking money off the ground. It’s gonna be a lot easier now.”
New Zealander Mike Miller was brought in as consulting CEO of BetRoyal (also known as Royal), Kohli’s sportsbook, for ten months between 2006 and 2007. Miller describes Kohli courting him before he decided to join, flying him in business class to London for the interview and putting him up in a five-star hotel. But Miller later soured on Kohli. “He had a slightly flawed view of the online gambling world,” Miller says. “He felt that when anyone deposited money to any of his businesses—and there were 50-80 of them—that money was his.”
Kohli’s sites also failed to pay out winnings in a timely manner, according to four former employees and gambling industry review websites. His Virtual Casino group received industry ratings site Casinomeister’s “Worst Casino Group” award at least three times—in 2002, 2007 and 2008—for slow-payment issues. Bryan Bailey, founder of Casinomeister, wrote in 2007 that the award was given because of its “habitual stalling of player payments” and its unpleasant sounding “September 11th Twin Tower bonus.” One staffer who worked for Kohli from 2008 to 2010 in Costa Rica was tasked with customer service, which included handling complaints about the slow payment of winnings. She tells Forbes that when people called, chasing their winnings, “I did the best I could to help people, but … it was just no, no, no with no reason.”
As an entrepreneur, Kohli was passionate about his reputation in the industry. In 2005, news broke that John Walker, who worked in Costa Rica as the founder of gambling news site Sportsbook Review, was allegedly threatened over an article naming Kohli as the new owner of a sportsbook called Royal Sports. According to Walker, Kohli was angry because “his reputation was so bad for not paying people … he didn’t want people to know he was buying Royal.” Walker says he took the article down from the Sportsbook Review website because he was intimidated by people who appeared to work on behalf of Kohli.
At their peak, Kohli’s casino operations netted at least $1 million a month, say former employees. Under the name Navtej Kohli, he was a director of a Panama-based shell company, Wisol International, which is tied to 642 domain names, many of which are online gambling sites—at least six of which are still live today.
Kohli’s San Jose Costa Rica office, which employed around 100 people, was not a nice place to work, say several former employees.
“There was quite a culture of intimidation. People were afraid of Kohli,” says one former staffer. A high-ranking employee from the early days in San Jose told Forbes, “He had a temper on him that could melt down the office. It was hard. His joy was in making grown men cry … break them down till they were on their knees begging for forgiveness.”
Kohli seemed to have mellowed over time. One long-term employee who worked at Silver Arrow after 2007 never saw anyone receive any physical aggression. This person describes Kohli as often “verbally abusive” but “not to employees, to managers.”
“Show me an opportunity with global potential and I will create an empire.”
A spokesperson for Kohli says, “Like any successful businessman Mr. Kohli is from time to time confronted by false claims from disgruntled ex-employees and competitors. Any suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr. Kohli in any business or other matter are rejected absolutely.”
Kohli’s gambling business in Costa Rica was shuttered in 2016, according to former employees, who were laid off. While some of the executives helped build another business in Prague around 2016 (Kohli does not appear to be involved), Kohli emerged on the social and philanthropy scene in London in a very public way.
Positive clips began with random biographies on the likes of IMDB around 2011 and progressed to more of the same and listicles on little-known publications like The Start-Up Magazine. Kohli then began to appear in laudatory articles on the pages of The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Inc. magazine’s website and the Financial Times.
A couple of admiring articles even appeared on the Forbes website. In 2014, a contributor named Drew Hendricks published a post entitled “Top 15 Entrepreneurs Who Give Back To The Community” on Forbes.com, listing Kohli at number two, right behind social media billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. Kohli makes special note of the Forbes article on his biographical page tied to his alma mater. (Hendricks was removed from the Forbes platform for violating editorial standards, and this article was removed from Forbes.com.) Another favorable article, from a different former contributor, remains online.
Based on the available financial information, Forbes estimates Kohli’s net worth to be in the hundreds of millions, not billions. The only U.K. company in his name is a dormant entity called Osac Management with just $129 (£100) on the books as of November 2018. Forbes values Kohli’s personal property in Henley-on-Thames at $8 million based on an estate agent estimate and similar listings in the surrounding area.
It’s very likely that Kohli earned most of his fortune amid the cash-rich gambling business in Costa Rica. Former HR consultant Paniagua told Forbes that while she worked there in 2009 and 2010, Kohli “would clear a couple of million a month. Free and clear. After he paid his houses, after he paid his cars, after he paid his lifestyle–net, net.” One former employee sent Forbes an Excel file with purported financial info for all of Kohli’s casinos for the month of October 2006; the profit for the month: $1.06 million.
“The one mission that every entrepreneur has, as a person rather than as an entrepreneur, is to extend human life.”
Kohli’s wealth has since spread around the globe. In India, where he has a solar panel startup, the government undertook a tax investigation regarding the startup and earlier this year found $21.6 million in assets in a multifamily office tied to Kohli as of December 2016, $20.9 million of which was classified as “long-term loans and advances.” A representative for Kohli did not comment on this matter.
In June, Kohli issued a press release saying he’d invested $100 million into an entity called Rewired, “a robotics-focused venture studio with a humanitarian bent.” Forbes was not able to confirm whether $100 million was really invested. One company mentioned was Open Bionics, a startup creating artificial limbs in Bristol, U.K, endorsed online by Star Wars star Mark Hamill. Open Bionics did not reply to repeated requests for comment. Forbes confirmed that Rewired invested in Aromyx–a Silicon Valley firm involved in producing bio-based scents for use in various consumer products (the dollar amount invested was not disclosed), and that Rewired was a backer of a $3.5 million seed investment round in U.K. firm Seldon, a machine-learning platform for sharing data.
And those nine properties, including the Berlin apartment complexes, listed on Kohli’s website? It’s unclear whether Kohli owns all of them or just a portion. A spokesperson for Kohli says his investments “have lain in real estate.”
This wide array of seemingly legitimate projects offer a way for Kohli to invent an image that belies his past as a con man, a casino boss and convict. That bothers his previous victims—the ones reached by Forbes are still out money. (Forbes could not confirm, with Kohli or elsewhere, whether Kohli paid his $5 million in restitution, and if he did, who got it.) It doesn’t seem to bother Kohli. “Show me an opportunity with global potential and I will create an empire,” Kohli boasts in his online bio for his alma mater. He already created an empire—just not the kind he wants people to believe in.