Philly-born tech founder who falsely claimed he had an Eagles Super Bowl ring and helped the CIA hunt terrorists got $1.5 million in PPP loans as his company went up in flames

Was Zenabi Data ever legit? A billionaire investor was convinced, but a onetime employee said the FBI is now asking about his former boss.

Eddie Ibanez at the MKTSQ launch of CryptoZoo in Miami, June 2021

Eddie Ibanez at the MKTSQ launch of CryptoZoo in Miami, June 2021

Tiffany Sage / BFA.com
adamrobb

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Kensington native Eddie Ibanez made a practice of faking it until he made it, ultimately achieving an enviable American dream of status and means that appears poised for a collapse, despite over a million in PPP loans from the federal government.

By the time Ibanez reached his 30s, he had settled in the wealthy enclave of Westport, Connecticut, married Fox News anchor Jackie Ibanez, started a family, and founded Zenabi Data, a small marketing and analytics firm backed by a big investor. But it wasn’t enough.

He couldn’t stop embellishing his life story, at times erasing or exaggerating his Philadelphia bona fides.

Two lies that have come to define his public persona are rooted in the hometown he left behind. First, Ibanez claimed to be an orphan, erasing nearly all evidence of the single mother who’d raised him on Waterloo Avenue — save for an inconvenient Fox & Friends segment from 2017 where Jackie, now his ex-wife, cooks a “family recipe” from her then-mother-in-law.

Ibanez also claimed he received an Eagles Super Bowl ring, gifted to him by owner Jeffrey Lurie after his firm Zenabi played a pivotal role in Philly’s 2017-18 championship season. According to a spokesperson for the Eagles, he never received a ring — or even a paycheck.

These and other lies came into question last summer, when he hired a public relations agency to promote the launch of his latest business, CryptoZoo, a cryptocurrency and NFT venture developed with social media influencer Logan Paul. By then, Zenabi had been evicted from its offices, and Ibanez was living by himself in a Manhattan apartment.

In an effort to promote the project, and himself, Ibanez gave interviews to Billy Penn in June and July 2021.

With disregard for many inconsistencies and contradictions, the 36-year-old described various past exploits. It’s true Ibanez was enrolled at New York Military Academy, after his mother withdrew him from Ziegler Elementary School in Frankford for a better life in upstate New York, but according to his former classmates, he was never a hacker responsible for stealing 15 million credit card numbers from AOL, or crashing MTV.com, as he recently told podcaster Trish Regan.

He also claimed to work as a CIA contractor, raising a toast to surviving a dangerous mission in Kirkuk, Iraq, following the 2003 US invasion, before admitting he never traveled overseas for the agency in a follow-up interview.

Ibanez’s most recent public bio, posted on the CryptoZoo.co website last July, falsely claimed he was a visiting associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, held multiple degrees, and was the recipient of distinguished service medals.

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Ibanez in an Instagram post promoting Brains and Bands, a series of conversations and concerts in Westport, CT

Instagram / @brains_and_bands

Accessing church data to boost sports ticket sales

Before its decline, Ibanez boasted an enviable roster of clients at Zenabi Data.

The company provided data marketing and analytics to the Mormon church; the International Champions Cup soccer tournament, owned by billionaire Miami Dolphins owner Steven M. Ross; and several direct-to-consumer fashion brands from the portfolio of Burch Creative Capital. That company, founded by billionaire investor J. Christopher Burch, ex-husband of handbag designer Tory, also invested in Zenabi.

Zenabi also hosted events in Westport that helped build cred with the local Connecticut community. Twice in 2018, the company hosted Brains & Bands, a series of conversations and concerts featuring thought leaders like Guggenheim Partners co-founder J. Todd Morley, and Ibanez’s 90s teen idols, including legendary skateboarder Rodney Mullen, BMX rider Mat Hoffman, and the lead singers of rock bands Sponge and Everclear.

Right around then, a number of scandals began to rock the company.

On June 21, 2018, Jackie Ibanez made local newspaper headlines after she was arrested at Zenabi by Westport police, in what was described as a domestic dispute. She filed for divorce from Eddie less than a month later, and took leave from Fox News that November, eventually rejoining the network in June 2019.

Prior to their divorce, Ibanez and his wife were active members of a nearby LDS temple. In April 2019, however, he was accused of breaching the church’s trust.

He had apparently attempted to access sensitive Mormon demographic data and target church email lists, to improve ticket sales for another client, the International Champions Cup. A whistleblower tipped off the church, according to recordings and documents provided to Billy Penn, prompting a scramble at Zenabi the following day.

“They were literally going to write me a $20 million check, then this thing happened,” Ibanez said in a May 2019 recording, speaking to a new employee whom he asked to take the blame for the incident. He assured them it would guarantee their continued employment at Zenabi, which would be able to revive the relationship and get a new LDS Church contract.

The value of that new contract may have been much less than Ibanez suggested. In a March 2020 recording, he told employees it was then only worth “around 20” thousand dollars a month.

Despite retaining their business, the Latter-day Saints weren’t promoted as a client on Zenabi’s website. Instead, the site showcased supposed clients Zenabi had never signed. Logos for the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins appear in archives of the site from 2018, as captured by the Wayback Machine.

“Sports in Philadelphia meant something,” Ibanez told Billy Penn last July. “It felt like we didn’t have hope, but you had your team every Sunday, and you cared about that more than church.”

Eddie has three children with ex-wife Jackie Ibanez, who in late 2018 took a leave from Fox News

Eddie has three children with ex-wife Jackie Ibanez, who in late 2018 took a leave from Fox News

Instagram / @jackieibanezfnc

‘Nobody can verify’ he worked for NFL teams — or the CIA

Ibanez “did not receive a ring and nobody can verify that he worked on player analysis on behalf of the team,” said Allison Waddington, PR coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles reportedly didn’t even take a meeting with Ibanez until March 2018, one month after the Super Bowl LII win.

“Those familiar with Mr. Ibanez recall that he was introduced to the team by the Dolphins,” an Eagles spokesperson said. “The fact that they can’t say for certain should tell you all you need to know about the depth of the relationship.”

Ibanez provided his own explanation: “That whole thing is bureaucracy. Steve [Ross] and Jeffrey [Lurie] have to fight their underlings — it’s tough,” he said about the Dolphins’ and Eagles’ owners. “That’s why I stopped consulting.”

He claimed the Eagles’ former director of performance, Sean Huls, and former Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, could confirm Zenabi’s contributions to their respective teams.

Huls, now director of performance for the Cleveland Browns, confirmed he had met and spoken with Ibanez on multiple occasions, but said the conversations never went anywhere.

“We gave him data to work with to see what the output would be,” Huls recalled. “We didn’t pay anything, and we wouldn’t have given him anything if he didn’t sign an NDA.” Huls said the data the Eagles supplied for the test run was “de-identified,” meaning Zenabi analysts would never know which athletes they studied.

“Carson Wentz had torn his ACL, and Ibanez said his algorithm predicted that stuff, but we didn’t know that [in advance],” Huls said about the franchise quarterback’s season-ending injury in 2017. “If he predicted it, that would have been nice, but there’s no way he could have.”

Ibanez’s boasts about the CIA were an alarm bell for Huls. Before joining the Eagles, Huls was the head strength and conditioning coach for Naval Special Warfare, and coordinated training and injury prevention programs for Navy SEAL teams.

Described by Ibanez, “Sean had a special-ops training background, and we resonated,” but Huls remembered the experience differently. He believed Ibanez’s storytelling would have prevented him from being recruited by a government intelligence agency.

“The entire selection process for that [agency] is all psychologically based,” Huls said. “And if you’re not conscientious about who you are and what you do, how can I trust you to be an agent in the field and not have an international incident?”

Ibanez in NYC, July 2021, as posted by a former NY Military Academy classmate whom he hired at Zenabi

Ibanez in NYC, July 2021, as posted by a CryptoZoo employee

Instagram / @_leahlawson

A representative for the Miami Dolphins told Billy Penn Ibanez was introduced to the Dolphins through the Philadelphia Eagles, and confirmed the organization never contracted with Zenabi.

Confronted with this discrepancy, Ibanez just smiled. “Those lying assholes,” he said.

Before his publicist ended the interview, Ibanez scrolled through his inbox on his iPhone, searching for evidence to prove his case. He pulled up several emails from StubHub advertising Eagles ticket offers, and eventually a February 2019 exchange with Burch Creative Capital managing director Brian Carden.

Ibanez had sent Carden a Philadelphia Inquirer piece about the Eagles using another company’s player analytics hardware. The story, by Inquirer sports writer Les Bowen, explored the Eagles’ relationship with Zebra Technologies, yet Ibanez told Billy Penn it was about Zenabi, seemingly unaware the full body of the email was visible during the interview when he allowed it to be photographed. Carden had responded: “Was looking for an Eddie shoutout in the article.”

Ibanez showed a pitch deck Zenabi sent to the Eagles. Along with acknowledgement of an NDA, the presentation included claims about past work for federal agencies.

“A few of us have even held roles at ‘3 letter’ government agencies, but that’s classified,” read one slide. The Zenabi website made similar claims, stating that “the majority of Zenabi team members” possessed top secret security clearances and three-letter agency experience.

Of more than 40 former Zenabi employees and interns contacted by Billy Penn, none said they had worked for US intelligence agencies, nor could they recall a co-worker who said they had — except for Ibanez, who has claimed he was recruited by the CIA during his freshman year at MIT.

Ibanez was never enrolled at MIT, the MIT News Office confirmed. The CIA did not return a request for comment.

The myth of Ibanez’s MIT-to-CIA pipeline was reiterated on multiple occasions, in very public settings. At an online seminar in the University of Michigan’s 2020 Sports Management Summer Series, host Barry Klarberg introduced Ibanez as someone who was “once contracted by the U.S. government at the age of 18 years old to help identify various terrorist threats,” and is “now the president of Zenabi Data, whose clients include Priceline, the Philadelphia Eagles, Steven Ross, and Chris and Tory Burch.”

Klarberg, founder of celebrity-favored wealth management company Monarch, relied on Ibanez for favors on behalf of his non-sports clients, according to emails reviewed by Billy Penn — including burying a negative Us Weekly story about Real Housewives of NYC star Bethenny Frankel so it would be less visible in search results.

At the U of M seminar, Ibanez spoke about work he claimed to have done under the Terrorist Surveillance Program. He also talked about developing technology that allowed coaches to predict player soft tissue injuries with 98% confidence.

By that summer, however, no professional sports team had contracted Zenabi and the company had effectively ceased to exist.

A 2018 meeting between Ibanez and Zenabi investor Chris Burch was captured on video

$1.5 million in PPP loans for a failing company

Zenabi received two rounds of federal stimulus, according to Pro Publica’s PPP tracker: nearly $865,000 on April 28, 2020, when the company reported 20 employees, and another $690,000 a year later on April 1, 2021, when it reported 31 employees.

The company at that time was literally falling apart, thanks to a major backer pulling out.

During senior staff meetings in early 2020, Ibanez revealed investor Chris Burch would soon cease contributing to Zenabi’s payroll.

Few employees outside the payroll department knew Burch was an investor as well as a client (though the company did appear in Burch Creative Capital’s online portfolio), and that March, the relationship was reported as news in fashion trade magazine WWD.

Confronted with the article, Ibanez suggested it was inaccurate, but his own words belie him. “Chris pulled out due to Coronavirus,” Ibanez tells Zenabi senior management in a recording of a meeting on March 13, 2020. “He doesn’t think it’s prudent of an investment and he got his team of lawyers on the phone with me and said here’s how you wind things down.”

Indicating he’d been invited to Miami to meet with Burch in person, Ibanez told his team he would use the trip to negotiate back pay and severance if he couldn’t convince Burch to keep the company afloat.

Before the management meeting concluded, a Connecticut state marshal arrived to serve Ibanez an eviction notice on Zenabi’s Westport office.

Less than a week later, a senior Zenabi employee emailed the remaining staff with advice on how to apply for health and unemployment insurance after they stopped receiving paychecks.

zenabi-ppp-loan
ProPublica

Just before that missive, Ibanez hired Kelsey Elliott, a model and influencer he’d met while on vacation a few months earlier. The offer letter he sent her on Feb. 7, 2020, was for a full-time position as Zenabi assistant vice president, with an annual salary of $80,000. Soon, however, Elliott became Ibanez’s personal assistant and caretaker to his children, for a lesser salary.

She said she lived and worked with Ibanez for five months in the dilapidated Marsh Court mansion he rented in Westport during his divorce, before helping him relocate to Manhattan.

“The front door didn’t have a door knob, just an open hole,” Elliott recalled. “I said, ‘You can’t live like this or you’re going to get your children taken away from you.’ ”

Ibanez lost the Connecticut house instead.

In August 2021, his landlord sued for over $118,000 in back rent and property damage. It was the latest in a series of potential financial setbacks for Ibanez.

Ibanez was also ordered last year to pay fees owed to a Connecticut law firm, and to American Express. An additional judgment was made against Zenabi for money owed to Trinet, Ibanez’s former payroll service. Since December 2020, three former employees have been attempting to sue Ibanez for back pay in Connecticut Superior Court.

The status of Zenabi’s PPP loans is unknown, but the acquisition of those funds is now the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, according to one former employee who said they were interviewed by the FBI last December.

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.