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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.
"We understood that this might be too good to be true," says Peter Turchi, director of the fine arts program at North Carolina's Warren Wilson College, where Desai agreed to a $150,000 gift but didn't fill out the paperwork. At the University of Florida, Desai promised a seven-figure contribution that also was never formalized.
In January, Desai talked to Harvard about a possible donation to the English department. "But it just didn't strike any of us as the right time," he says. So no chairs for his alma mater, although Desai may have taught college fund raisers a thing or two about irrational exuberance. "Next time the university is approached by an unknown donor," says Washington's Arkans, "this will make us a little more cautious."