Memoir recounts how a scam artist turned a Pitt grad into a “company pimp” | Pittsburgh City Paper

Memoir recounts how a scam artist turned a Pitt grad into a “company pimp”

click to enlarge Memoir recounts how a scam artist turned a Pitt grad into a “company pimp”
Photo: Courtesy of Ron Kaiser

Ron Kaiser was promised many things by Earl Belle. He was going to be the editor of the Saltsburg News in Indiana County. He was going to direct PR campaigns for Belle’s seemingly inexhaustible business interests.

Instead, Kaiser ended up in jail.

In his self-published book,The Note from Belle, Kaiser, now 92, recounts his long-ago interactions with Belle, who became a media darling because of his lavish lifestyle in Pittsburgh and New York City, and, ultimately, a pariah who fled the country.

Kaiser wasn’t the only one enamored by Belle’s investment schemes. Belle hosted lavish parties in New York City attended by politicians, socialites, and even novelist Ayn Rand. He seemed to have an answer any time he was questioned about his plans, whether it was revitalizing Saltsburg by forming a development company (as well as buying the Saltsburg News and installing Kaiser as its editor), purchasing a gold mine and luring investors, or leveraging his influence at banks for loans never to be repaid.

“I had no suspicion he would do anything wrong,” says Kaiser, who met Belle in 1956 through his wife while they were both students at the University of Pittsburgh.

Belle enlisted Kaiser to do publicity, but instead, he installed the young Pitt graduate as an executive trainee at a bank in Saltsburg where he had invested money – money that Belle had borrowed from his wife and a Squirrel Hill family with real estate connections, the Talenfelds. It wasn’t what Kaiser wanted to do — “truthfully, I am the world’s worst businessman,” he says — but Belle promised it was only temporary.

“You have to remember, he had people like Ayn Rand and military generals and bank presidents in his camp,” Kaiser tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “I had no reason to believe he wasn’t being straight with me. I did have those incidents where he was using other PR people from time to time, which was very distressing to me. But he had me convinced I would eventually go to his headquarters and head up all the PR for his companies. I saw that as a big opportunity.”

Belle was seemingly flush with money. There’s an image in the book of Kaiser, and his wife, along with Belle and his first wife dining at a nightclub in Cuba during a business junket. There were trips to New York during which Kaiser was asked to run errands, including one assignment at party where he was to select “up and coming actresses and fashion models” to serve as hostesses for a party to be attended by Pittsburgh bankers, politicians, business leaders, and media that Belle had flown to New York on a chartered plane.

Later, Kaiser realized he’d become “the company pimp.”

But it wasn’t until Kaiser was asked to take over a bank in Edgewater, NJ and “remodel and recapitalize it” that he veered into illegal activity. Kaiser’s role, more or less, was to approve loans submitted by Belle.

Kaiser, worried about what he was being asked to do, made a crucial mistake.

“The only reason I went to jail — the only reason — was because I called the FBI in Pittsburgh and I went down without an attorney and voluntarily gave him a statement,” Kaiser says. “I think that's what New Jersey used against me, my own statement.”

Kaiser was sentenced to one year in jail. The other men involved in Belle’s schemes got probation. And Belle fled to Brazil, which at the time didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States, with his paramour, Sarah “Naomi” Wallman, Belle’s so-called Ozark Princess, and millions of dollars.

David Brinkley of NBC News flew to Brazil to interview Belle, who insisted he’d done nothing wrong. Belle eventually returned to the U.S. after being indicted for fraud in Brazil. Tried for embezzlement, Belle served 22 months of a 30-month sentence.

Kaiser languished in jail before being released after 90 days. He’d go on to a career in advertising and public relations, working on more than 150 political campaigns in the region, including one for former Pittsburgh City Council President Ben Woods, who was convicted of 17 counts of racketeering, extortion, income tax evasion, and conspiracy in 1989.  When the FBI interviewed Kaiser about Woods, agents said they didn’t want to make him a victim again.

But that admission — that Kaiser was victimized by Belle — was almost 30 years too late.

“I used to sweat it out every time I handled a campaign that my background was going to pop out,” Kaiser says. “Living as a convicted felon, it was a very hard life. There’s a lot of things you can’t do. And it wasn’t that I tried to keep it a secret, but I also didn’t want to broadcast it.”

More than 60 years later, Kaiser still holds himself responsible for getting caught up in Belle’s schemes.

“I was a convicted felon for most of my working life,” says Kaiser. “Writing [the book] brought back some bad memories… I fought my way through all this crap over the years. I didn’t have a tremendous emotional reaction. But when I thought about what I did, my biggest emotional reaction was how goddamned stupid I was. And I really chastise myself for being so dumb.”

The Note From Belle by Ronald O. Kaiser.