The words “serial con man” are not what you want applied to a man promising to retool a prominent downtown building. But that's how federal prosecutors once described John Thomas, a real estate developer turned FBI informant, turned convict, turned developer once more.
At an auction last December, he bought the former Ecolab building at 386 Wabasha Street North in downtown St. Paul for $3.5 million. He now plans to refurbish the 20-story structure into 200 apartments, with a Jet Express grocery and a wine bar on the lower floors. His history, however, would suggest that St. Paul place very tight scrutiny.
Thomas' original name is Bernard Barton. He's spent two decades as a developer in Chicago. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to package of financial frauds in New York, including stealing credit card info and selling billboard space that he didn't actually own.
He was able to skate on prison time by becoming an FBI informant, dishing intel on commercial real estate fraud and political corruption. This would eventually buy him a mere three years of probation on his New York plea.
Yet he was arrested again in 2014, this time under the name John Thomas. His latest victim was the Chicago suburb of Riverdale. He planned to build a marina on the Little Calumet River, with financial aid from the city. Instead, he embezzled $375,000 of that money, using it to pay debts and rent.
Prosecutors called him a “serial con man,” according to the Chicago Tribune. They accused him of fabricating bills, like the $9,000 supposedly sent to a sewer company that didn't exist. He was also charged with paying off a lawyer with a fake home run ball supposedly hit by Babe Ruth.
Even after his arrest, Thomas couldn't stop scamming. Prosecutors charged him with violating a judge's home confinement order, saying he tried to cover up an affair by claiming he'd left his house for a dentist appointment. He was also caught on a jail phone talking to his wife about faking bipolar disorder.
Thomas would eventually plead guilty again, and this time the judge showed no mercy. He was sentenced to five years, and released in 2017. Only a year later, he bought the Ecolab building.
It could be that John Thomas has finally turned the corner, that his plans for St. Paul are legit. But St. Paul officials would be wise to make caution the order of the day. History suggests he's a man for whom a scam is default mode.
This story originally featured a mistaken photo of the Osborn370 building, which is not related to the subject. The Osborn is the larger of the former Ecolab towers and has been converted to a multi-tenant office building. Our apologies for the error.