At the start of the 21st century, Pleasant Hill native John E. Forsythe saw the world as his to lift into the information age.
Business deals overseas and a few Arab uprisings later, Forsythe says he is broke and barred from leaving Egypt.
For six years, the information technologist has been fighting the Egyptian legal system, with little help from the U.S. government, after authorities in Cairo grew suspicious of the high-tech gear in and around Forsythe’s home.
He said in phone interviews with The Star that he did nothing wrong and his own ignorance led to his troubles.
“One of the lessons is if you’re overseas and ever think you may be in trouble, leave,” he said. “Run out of town as fast as you can.”
Cleared of allegations of spying by Egyptian courts, Forsythe was fined the equivalent of about $35,000 for “misdemeanors” stemming from his work with companies seeking wireless access to the Internet, according to court records.
In January, a court ruled it lacked authority to rescind Forsythe’s fines or allow him to leave Egypt for good. With his case now bumped to a higher court, the country still has not issued a work permit to Forsythe so he might begin paying off the fines, the records show.
“Instead of throwing me in prison, they fined me for being stupid,” said Forsythe, who lives in the tourist city of Hurghada. “They think I have $50,000 stuffed in a mattress.”
Forsythe, a 1982 graduate of Pleasant Hill High School, said he wants to reunite with his 6-year-old daughter in Russia and return with her to the United States.
Responding to The Star’s request for information, the U.S. State Department issued a statement March 24:
“We can confirm that U.S. citizen John Forsythe has been banned from leaving Egypt. We take our obligation to assist U.S. citizens overseas seriously. We are providing all appropriate consular assistance.”
The assistance has been long in coming, Forsythe said.
Since 2009, when Forsythe’s battles with Egyptian authorities began, the country’s rulers have been twice overthown, muddying its relations with the United States.
Forsythe said his repeated requests for help from the State Department and its embassy in Cairo have mostly gone unanswered until recently. To prod U.S. officials into action, Forsythe, with help from friends here and in Egypt, last month got the word out through social media and news releases.
“John probably thought this would be more like the American system (of justice). If he had done nothing wrong, he thought he’d prevail,” said Jason Seibel, who in the 1990s worked with Forsythe to provide Internet service to companies in Florida.
“He knows how to write code, knows wireless, knows his networks,” Seibel said. “He’s not necessarily a good businessman” who is familiar with overseas commerce and licensing rules.
Also, “John’s not a diplomat,” said his father, Curtis Forsythe, a retiree in Pleasant Hill. “He speaks his mind.”
Curtis Forsythe calls Egypt’s payment demands “ransom.” He said that even if he were to refinance his house to pay off his son’s fines, he had doubts that the $35,000 would wind up in proper hands or lift the travel ban.
“Would he be able to get out without having to pay more?” Curtis Forsythe asked.
The Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., recently said it would look into John Forsythe’s case, but for now, most of the information comes from Forsythe.
And his story, as he tells it, starts with surging demand for 21st century technologies in places that had not yet caught up.
Forsythe said that after graduating from Pleasant Hill “a normal, everyday, nerd-type human,” he served four years in the Army and re-entered civilian life at the dawn of the information superhighway.
His computer acumen got him work in desktop publishing for Westport nightclubs. After moving to Florida, he co-hosted a tech-themed radio program with Seibel called “Wired Up” until about 2000.
Then Forsythe decided to bring his experience as an Internet service provider to tech-starved towns in Russia. “It just seemed interesting to me,” he said.
“Where there were 100 of us (information technology specialists) somewhere in America, here there’d be only one,” Forsythe said. “Me.”
Marrying in Russia, he and his wife discovered on a trip that Egypt offered a less-expensive lifestyle. Big companies there lacked the latest in Web access, too. So Foysythe and some partners licensed and launched Future Technology Management to set businesses up with wireless routers, he said.
In a letter to U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, Forsythe’s father said that his son had secured “profitable contracts” before Egyptian police jailed him on charges of “operating an illegal business (selling international calls), then of spying for America, neither of which was true.”
Blunt’s office recently contacted John Forsythe but declined to comment.
Forsythe’s wife and daughter left Egypt amid mounting political unrest after the 2011 revolution. The travel ban kept Forsythe from leaving.
The State Department has helped others on Egypt’s “no-fly” list.
As disputes arose over the United States’ role in Egyptian elections, the government slapped travel bans on more than 40 foreign employees of non-governmental organizations. The NGO workers, including the son of then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, were allowed to leave Egypt after U.S. officials reportedly paid between $4 million and $5 million in bail.
Forsythe told The Star he is not seeking a bailout from the U.S. government, but he does need American officials to broker his exit from the country and to oversee any transfer of funds to settle his fines.
A Kansas City friend and ex-roommate, Dwain Crispell, described Forsythe as “always an entrepreneur, who always does his own thing …
“It’s laughable that anyone would accuse John of being a spy,” Crispell said. “He’s just a Midwestern guy.”