Back in the days when NASDAQ-made millionaires were multiplying like mold spores, Desai materialized as a boy-wonder benefactor. He went on a pledging spree, contacting four colleges out of the blue and promising them a total of more than $5 million. That was before the Internet bubble--not to mention Desai's career--burst. To date he has coughed up only $6,770.
When someone contacts a university to make a big donation, the first call the development office makes is to the p.r. department, not security. Rigorous background checks aren't routine, so when Desai started cold-calling the University of Washington and other schools, his job history was cause enough to break out the champagne. Desai could list top positions at TheStreet.com and Scient, a once-hot e-consulting company. In the frenzied market for Internet talent, Desai moved from one top dot-job to another, leaving a trail of failure and hot air. And if any execs caught on, they don't appear to have let the next guy know.
The University of New Hampshire got the ball rolling when it announced Desai's $1 million pledge in October 1999. This might have served as a confidence builder for the University of Washington, which unveiled Desai's $2 million pledge at a $10,000 ceremony in February 2000. The accompanying press release listed Desai as ceo of Logical Information Machines, which should have been a red flag, since he never worked for the company.
"Philanthropy, in our experience, is based on trust and goodwill," says Norm Arkans, Washington's associate v.p. of university relations. "Some due diligence was done, and there was enough at least initially to suggest things seemed to check out." Apparently that diligence didn't include making a call to Logical.
Other stops on Desai's career track were true enough. Desai spent less than a year as editor in chief at TheStreet.com, with a brief stint as CEO. He had also been a managing director at Scient for eight months. This didn't faze the universities, because job hopping seemed de rigueur in the Internet world.
Trouble is, Desai was booted from TheStreet.com without any stock options and left Scient shortly after the New Hampshire pledge was announced. Desai told TIME he can't legally disclose how much Scient stock he holds, although the amount may not matter much, as the share value has fallen from $133 to less than $2. But he insists he's good for the dough--if and when the stock market bounces back. "There's been no resizing of the overall pledges," he says. "There's just been discussion about timing."
He still owes about $2 million to Washington, which to date has received only one check (which wasn't even big enough to cover the party and the engraved ice ax the school gave Desai, a professed Everest climber). "The longer time goes on, the more skepticism starts to creep in," Arkans says.
This winter Desai asked if the school would like to be paid in stock from his most recent employer, Formulasys, a privately held tech consulting company. Once again Desai became CEO. Briefly. He was asked to resign in January, five days after getting the top job. The firm claims he had been falsifying contracts with big-name companies like Vodafone, although Desai says the allegation is "utter nonsense."
"He didn't really produce any numbers. He just created a hype," says Formulasys president Rajeev Karajgikar. "He's a smooth talker, a real con man. He knows exactly how to play the cards." Karajgikar says Desai's reputation was self-perpetuating. "Stories of his donating millions led people to believe in him," he says.
Desai's private life is another kind of soap opera. Last month the Seattle Times exposed Desai as a bigamist. Although his divorce has yet to be completed, he remarried last April. His first wife, Jennifer Call, a fellow Harvard graduate, moved out in 1999 after she learned he'd been telling co-workers at Scient that she had died of cancer. She made that discovery when she fielded several condolence calls.
A year ago, a handful of poets, including then U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, joined an advisory board for a national poetry foundation that Desai was starting. Poet Heather McHugh says she agreed to serve on the assumption that Desai's university pledges had been "duly scrutinized." But at the first board meeting, she says, Desai "grew incoherent" and later blamed his erratic behavior on a rare illness. All the advisers subsequently resigned.