Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Like "Bonfire of the Vanities", in which a momentary event opened the door to a tale of desperation and intrigue, but with the added color of characters that could have come straight from "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight", this story is based on the true accounts of Josh Berman, a once highly-regarded Wall Street Guru with an unblemished 25 year track record whose life went into an irreversible tailspin when two FBI agents appeared at his home in the suburbs of Connecticut home at 7 a.m. on a brisk Monday morning in October 2002.

Waving a letter that Josh had purportedly written almost two years earlier, one that attested to the bonafides of long time close friend Jake Bronstein, a flamboyant Las Vegas entrepreneur with interests that extended from indie film financing to pay-day lending, the two “Feebs” claimed that Berman, a former stock exchange floor trader- turned-deal maker, was “single-handedly responsible” for defrauding a Hollywood bank out of $25 million in connection with the botched remake of a 1940’s film noire based on a novel by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Aside from the starkly ironic similarities between the protagonist in this real life story and that of the main character who sold his soul to the Devil in the award-winning novel, this true-to-life story’s principal character, along with his cohort, were to be indicted by a federal grand jury on various charges, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, all as a result of  Josh's pal allegedly reneging on a promise to invest in the production of a major Hollywood movie. Because the “remake” of film included a cast of world famous actors, leading producers, and high profile Hollywood banks, the story of the arrest was reported by entertainment news media around the world.

Booked and fingerprinted within two weeks after his first encounter with the Feebs, it took only a matter of days before Berman was forced to resign his partnership with a venerable Wall Street firm; so much for the concept of innocent until proven guilty. Unemployed, soon to be living in a state of emotional despair, and surviving on borrowed time and borrowed funds, as Berman’s saga unfolds, it opens the doors to true tales of conspiracy, Hollywood corruption, zealous prosecutors, mobsters, and fatally frantic acts.

To casual observers, Berman’s case was one of thousands of seemingly innocuous files within the black hole of the U.S. criminal justice system. But for Berman, the circumstances were anything but mild; his life was on the line. Although the letter that displayed his signature appeared incriminating, the charges were trumped, and it took him little time to realize that he was being used as a scapegoat to divert attention away from a Hollywood banking scandal, one that important people on both sides of the law needed to keep under wraps.

Berman’s options were limited. According to each of New York City’s top-rated white collar mouthpieces that reviewed his case, including the world famous defense lawyer that represented White House Chief of Staff Scooter Libbey, the letter was a smoking gun. Without the bank roll necessary to underwrite a fully-armed defense, including gumshoe resources to secure the proof he needed to vindicate himself, Berman struggled to find a lawyer whose opinion differed from all the rest. They all said the same thing; the best course of action was to plead guilty to the convoluted charges and accept the fact that he faced Federal sentencing guidelines that called for a minimum 21-36 months in prison, not to mention the wide impact of being branded a convicted felon for the rest of his life.

His other choice was equally unpalatable; he could plead not guilty and go to trial with a half-baked, under-funded defense strategy spearheaded by the only criminal lawyer in New York who was actually willing to try the case. But the risk of this strategy was crystal clear; it would otherwise expose Josh to a jury of his hypothetical-only peers within a climate of proletarian rebuke to the excesses of Wall Street-related greed, and where everyone had their cross hairs on the sharpies that were minting money and further separating the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Between the headline news of the day spot-lighting corporate bankruptcies that forced thousands to lose their jobs, the scandals surrounding Enron, Tyco, Martha Stewart and the rest, the media talking heads like Bill O’Reilly were all chanting the same “hang ‘em high” mantra instilled by born-again George W. and his “get-tough-on-crime”, hypocritical cronies. When it came to purported financial crimes, everyone was screaming for blood, and it didn’t matter whose. Prosecutors angling for notches in their gun belts were encouraged to shoot first and ask questions later, and they were primed to serve up raw meat and slow cook anyone that might satisfy the hunger for white collar criminals.

Even if not as appetizing as a flambéed Frank Quattrone, or a sautéed Dennis Kozlowski, the otherwise ‘front burner’ dishes of the day in the Eastern District US Attorney’s office, Berman was a juicy morsel for the Feds. He was the antipasto portion of a meal that would hopefully lead to a main course of his buddy Jake from Las Vegas, who the feds wanted to have grilled on a skewer, and if they were lucky enough, they might even land a few Hollywood big shots. The Feds figured that Berman was already caught on the hook, and with his blood in the water, he could be used to draw in a shark, and help, voluntarily other otherwise, to put his pal from Las Vegas into a steel cage.

In addition to having the playbook for what seemed like a slam dunk case against Berman, the government also owned the home court advantage. The federal courthouse where a potential trial would take place was located on the outskirts of civilization, in the town of East Islip, New York. To save money on transport, jurors were typically pooled from the blue collar community nestled against the East Islip off ramp of the Long Island Expressway, where the average house sits on a 20 x 50 ft plot, and populated by low income renters and sub-prime mortgage home owners that struggle two and three jobs just to cover their monthly nut, all the while transfixed by the parade of BMW’s and Mercedes zipping past Exit 52 and carrying mini-millionaires to and from their beach front mansions in the Hamptons, merely 10 miles away.

If he chose to take his case to trial, Berman would be tasty enough for the jurors all right; after all, his profile was the antithesis of those that would be selected to determine his fate; Jewish, works on Wall Street, lives in an exclusive community on the shores of Connecticut where the average house sold for more than a $1 million, and he made more money in one year than all of the jurors combined. If going to trial, his legal strategy would have to focus on getting a hung jury. At least one of the jurors, he thought, would have to believe that he was a pawn in a much bigger game of chess. If that didn’t work, than Berman would hang; the penalty for putting the government through the exercise would result in an even lengthier mandatory jail term, perhaps as much as five years, and a veritable economic death sentence that would ruin is career and devastate his family.

The options offered by the legal system were simply unpalatable, and the options of circumventing the legal system could prove deadly. Berman was facing the fight of his life, and desperate times called for desperate measures.

Over 25 years working on or around Wall Street, Josh had skated on thin ice plenty of times; it was a high risk business, and Josh was an Olympiad in risk.

Throughout a career that had more peaks and valleys than the streets of San Francisco, and more potholes than Manhattan’s FDR Drive, Josh would more than once have a front row seat to a stage full of schemers, in a production whose scenes would cover everything from stock market manipulation to phony investment schemes, to off-shore insurance companies that never pay claims, and to the world of Hollywood banking, where movie financing is fiction and fraud is fact.

He had become acquainted with a full deck of players, some were shrewd Kings and business moguls, and some were unsavory jokers who preyed on the greed of others. It was part of the territory, and despite the temptations to push the envelope, he never crossed the line. He was raised in world where your word is your bond and your reputation is the only thing of value, and Josh knew better than to take a plunge that would send him up shit’s creek. Or at least he thought so, until that one fateful Monday morning in October when the FBI came knocking on his door, introducing him to the bizarre and hardly just world of the U.S. criminal justice system

Based on the true story of a man whose life started with a silver spoon in search of the brass ring, and where one seemingly minor transgression would set off a chain reaction of events, indoctrinating him to the world of federal persecution, witless government agents, white and stained collar crooks, and ultimately, to plots of extortion and murder.


  1. Wow..After reading Chapter 4, sounds like you need to increase your life insurance policy!

  2. I gave up when I realized I wouldn't get the final chapter online. What a shame - or, as Bernie might say, Fuck! However, it's a compliment that I was pissed off. It means you wrote the character really well. You did. It rings. I really felt that I was looking through the eyes of a 40-something Jewish guy, which would be quite a leap of faith for this reader. That's kinda Tom Wolfian of ya. And if there's one thing Tom Wolfe can do, it's to invent a character. Perfectly. You have that down, and it's a rare skill.