“I was dreadfully wealthy for a while,” confides John Lefebvre, almost apologetically, from his home. One of his homes. Not the one in Malibu, Calif., which has a whole different vibe. This one is on Saltspring Island, the Gulf island with B.C.’s greatest per-capita population of organic environmentalists, hippies, artists of every sort, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, eccentrics, dreamers and social critics. Perfect, in other words, for the Calgary-born Lefebvre, 57, who is all those things and more.
Lefebvre’s curriculum vitae reads like a train wreck of enthusiasms, except, somehow, he’s kept it on the rails. Where to begin? One could start in 1969 when, as a 17-year-old, he had the misfortune to sell acid to an undercover cop, netting eight months in Bowden Institution, north of Calgary. Or with his role in founding Neteller, a multi-billion-dollar online payment and cash transfer company that ran him afoul of the U.S. Justice Department last year. Or with his latest passion: Psalngs, (pron. songs) his self-financed, 29-song CD—a country-tinged, rock ’n’ roll summation of his life’s experiences. Psalngs is yours for a free download at www.psalngs.com, because, sounding like an unreconstructed hippie, he likes the idea of his music floating free out there. He hopes, he says, to build an audience for a tour later this year. “If you want to make money, go play the music,” he says. “Let the music fill the seats. That’s the business model.”
With the juvenile drug bust behind him, Lefebvre worked jobs from construction, to gardener, to taxi driver. Along the way, he had a daughter, went to law school, then walked away from the profession, picked up his guitar—and busked for change on Calgary’s streets. “That was a great unburdening,” he says. “There is no job in the world more about working for The Man than being a lawyer.” Busking had its own challenges. “It’s fair to say that I owed just about everybody I knew money,” he says. “I came to terms with the fact that this was becoming a very expensive hobby for all of my friends.”
He went back to the law, eventually doing real estate work for Calgary developer Stephen Lawrence, who had an idea for a secure online payment and money transfer service. Lefebvre became a partner. In 1999 they founded Neteller (now renamed Neovia Financial), which is registered in the Isle of Man, regulated by the United Kingdom, and traded on the London Stock Exchange. Among its millions of international customers were gamblers who used the site as a middleman for processing payments of their wins and losses at online casinos and poker sites. But Neteller’s popularity coincided with a U.S. crackdown on Internet gambling, and though it isn’t a gambling site, both Lawrence and Lefebvre were arrested in January 2007, and charged with criminal conspiracy for transferring gambling proceeds. By then, neither man was a director in the company and both had sold off at great profit much of their shares. Lefebvre, who says his net worth was once in the neighbourhood of $300 million, was arrested at his home in Malibu. He spent a week in jail before posting $5 million in bail.
Before his arrest, he’d been in discussions about recording with Brian Ahern, legendary producer for Anne Murray, Emmylou Harris and George Jones, among others. “The locus of the recording was determined by me being arrested and confined to the five southern districts of Los Angeles,” says Lefebvre. “Well, if you’re stuck in L.A. for eight months, they’ve got some pretty good studios there.” The CD—made with an A-list of session musicians—was a creative distraction from the stress of his court case, he says.
Both Lefebvre and Lawrence pleaded guilty in July 2007, avoiding further jail time. “I’m out on bail,” he says, his plea bargain contingent on assisting the FBI “to understand how the business works.” The company and its two founders were also hammered with substantial fines. “Between [Lawrence], myself and the company, we forfeited $240 million. My portion of that was $40 million,” says Lefebvre. “That’s a lot of given’ away money.” Asked if he’s still solvent, he chuckles. “I’m fine,” he says.
He avoids discussing his case or his views on American justice. He prefers to talk about his music, and perhaps there’s a reason for that. A song like Mr. Bully Boy can say a lot of things. “Justice is a word that used to have sense,” he sings. “Now it’s just another barb in your fence. Land of the free, incarcerate me.” Maybe it’s just a song, or maybe it’s a way of fighting back. That’s the beauty of music in Lefebvre’s world. It has no constraints. Music is free.