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PhillyDeals: Technology Leaders (TL Ventures) in fight over fees

Bad enough that they lost money for investors. The partners who ran the Philadelphia area's largest venture capital fund during the dot-com bubble are now fighting over millions in fees.

Bad enough that they lost money for investors.

The partners who ran the Philadelphia area's largest venture capital fund during the dot-com bubble are now fighting over millions in fees.

The Technology Leaders (TL Ventures) funds, of Wayne, headed by Fidelity Bank veteran Robert Keith, raised more than $1 billion from investors to buy little companies from here to Texas to California.

TL raised $85 million of that money from the state-funded Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System (SERS) from 1997 to 2000.

How did that work out?

The fund TL set up in 1997, as the dot-com boom got going, has paid SERS $20.7 million, for a profitable return on the state's $15.1 million investment, according to SERS' 2009 annual report.

But the 1999 fund paid back $22.8 million of SERS' $35 million investment, making it a money-losing proposition.

And the 2000 fund, raised as the market for little tech companies was starting to collapse, has paid back just $7.3 million of the $34.8 million SERS invested.

In all, SERS put in nearly $85 million into the three funds, and has gotten back just $50.8 million.

It costs money to lose that kind of money: SERS paid TL $380,000 in fees last year alone.

TL also raised $50 million from the Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) in 1997, and it has returned nearly $69 million, most of it years ago, PSERS spokeswoman Evelyn Tatkovski told me.

The fund is waiting for a final $110,000. It no longer collects fees, she added: "It's an old partnership, and it's winding down." PSERS stayed out of the later TL funds.

Do you, as a Pennsylvanian, feel let down? So do some of the people who used to run TL.

In a Texas state lawsuit, former TL partners Robert Fabbio of Austin, Stanley Tims of Las Vegas, and Stephen Andriole, a Villanova University information-technology professor, alleged last summer that Keith and other TL partners are wrongly trying to make the trio refund $3 million they collected from TL.

According to the suit, the former partners say TL is trying to "claw back" old fees, which funds can do when the results are disappointing and they shut down.

But the ex-partners say the TL funds haven't dissolved yet, and the trio doesn't want to pay.

Instead, they asked a judge to make TL produce records, which they alleged could show "mishandling of investments" caused the investment losses.

"The TL entities dispute and vigorously contest the allegations in the Texas case," TL's attorney, Jeffrey G. Weil, of Cozen O'Connor, told me.

TL demanded arbitration under the funds' policies, and the two sides met with arbitrators in Philadelphia from Dec. 1 to 4. They'll try again in February, Cindy Olson Bourland, attorney for the ex-partners, told me.

I asked SERS spokesman Robert Gentzel if the system knew about the dispute, and how it felt.

"We're well aware of the litigation," but feel it "would not be appropriate to comment," since SERS isn't part of the suit, he told me.

Who's hiring?

Not everybody's laying off workers.

Schott DiamondView Armor Products L.L.C. has boosted employment at its Boothwyn plant to 90, from 17 earlier this year, to handle a contract to build "transparent armor systems" (bulletproof windows) for Oshkosh Truck Corp. It is part of a $1 billion contract Oshkosh has from the government to build M-ATV vehicles to fight the war in Afghanistan, Schott marketing chief Katie MacIntyre told me.

Schott, owned by Germany's Schott AG, bought the plant in January from a partnership between Schott and Marlton investor Robert A. Lipinski's Dynamic Defense Materials L.L.C. MacIntyre declined to say how much Schott has invested.

Separately, Clearwire, the high-speed mobile-broadband modem company backed by Sprint, Comcast and others, says it has hired 130 since early November to staff its new Philadelphia-area offices.

The company plans more hires as it builds out a network of 13 stores and sites, and it will eventually employ about 200 salespeople and technicians in the area, Andrew Kupiec, the company's Philadelphia regional boss, told me.