A federal judge has issued a restraining order against a Virginia businessman who worked for more than a year to revive the defunct Essar Steel Minnesota in Nashwauk, Minn., ordering him to stop representing himself as the owner of the project.
Nubai Global Investment Ltd., based in the British Virgin Islands, sued the businessman, Tom Clarke, claiming that it is the owner of the Iron Range company that now goes by Mesabi Metallics.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz ruled Friday that "the court finds that it is very likely that Nubai will succeed in proving that it has been the sole member of Chippewa Capital Partners LLC since June 1."
Clarke's attorney had no comment. In court documents, Clarke said Nubai had defaulted on an exit settlement agreement, paying only $159 million of the $250 million owed to Mesabi by April. Clarke, in the documents, said he gave Nubai an extension until June 30, but "Nubai defaulted yet again by failing for the second time to satisfy its contractual funding obligation to Chippewa and Mesabi."
Clarke had worked for 16 months to remove Mesabi Metallics from bankruptcy court and to secure financing so that the problem-plagued and half-built $2 billion project could continue. However, Nubai officials sued him Aug. 1 for allegedly failing to give up control after Clarke sold the Nashwauk entity to Nubai.
Schiltz said in his ruling it is likely that Clarke had "no authority whatsoever to act on behalf of Chippewa or Mesabi." Clarke had continued to represent himself as the head of the project, even trying to fire board members, after Nubai had fired him as CEO on July 16.
As part of the order, Clarke is prohibited from referring to himself as the owner of Chippewa or Mesabi when communicating to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Gov. Mark Dayton or any employees or lawyers. Clarke was further ordered to disclose all passwords and user names regarding the businesses to Nubai and to return to Nubai "any and all" tangible and intangible properties.
Nubai said in court documents it bought Mesabi Metallics and its sister firm Chippewa Capital Partners from Clarke via two transactions, one in November 2017 and the other in May.
The company said in a statement on Monday that under interim CEO Gary Heasley, the company will continue developing the long-controversial iron ore project in Nashwauk.
"With the unnecessary and needless distractions of the last few weeks now clearly addressed by the courts, we can now refocus our efforts on the Mesabi project," the statement said.
The company plans to complete the half-built taconite plant plus build an enhanced ore production facility. Nubai spokesman John Oram said in an e-mail that the project could require more than 800 workers.
Assistant DNR Commissioner Barbara Naramore said the agency had no comment regarding the judge's ruling Friday. The DNR had overseen and awarded the state's mineral lease rights to Mesabi/Chippewa in early July, after Clarke and his team complied with various requirements put into place last year.
The governor's office said in a statement that he "is prepared to abide by Judge Schiltz's order."
The property being fought over was supposed to have been built and operating as of 10 years ago.
But the Mumbai-based owners of Essar wrestled with financial troubles since 2007. The company repeatedly stopped and restarted the building project, leaving the state and hundreds of contractors either unpaid or paid late.
Essar filed for bankruptcy in 2016 with roughly $1 billion in debt.