Thursday, December 4, 2008

Chapter 2-FBI Fanatics

At first, I thought I was in the middle of a bad dream; that I actually wasn’t standing at my desk with the phone in my hand, but that I was still at home and tucked into bed, passing time in REM 6 mode, and that I’d wake up screaming any second. I don’t remember how long it took for me to answer Lorna, it seemed like minutes, but it was likely less than two seconds, and all I could think of to say was “What?? What are you talking about?” Watch enough CSI Miami on TV, and you hear the same witless retort from the prime suspect; with the proper feign of shock and surprise, this is a classic non-committal response that is intended to assure the other person of complete innocence.

“They just rang the doorbell and asked if you were here”. The fear was resonating from her voice. “I asked them who they are, and they said that they’re from the FBI. Then I asked them what they wanted, and all they would say is they needed to speak to you and wanted to know where they could find you.”

“Take it slow, honey, try to calm down for a second” I said. I hadn’t called Lorna “honey” in a long time. We’d grown out of affectionate names for each other, so it became a phrase that I’ve more recently reserved for comforting her in moments of real trauma, like when learning that someone close had just been diagnosed with cancer. I suggested that she take a deep breadth, and then I tried to sound like I was in control, “Have they shown you any kind of ID? And where are they right now??”

Then the river flowed. “One of them flashed a business card, but it was so fast, I couldn’t even read it. They’re standing in the driveway right now.” Then she said, “I told them that if they didn’t leave, I was going to call the police and have them removed from the property! Then they said I was free to call the police if I wanted to. Then the one that flashed the card said that I was acting as if law enforcement had shown up to the door before!!” She barely took a breadth, “He said it would be fine with him to call the police, but before I did, that I should call you. What an asshole!! Who do they think they are?? These guys have a real attitude and they’re being very harassing, Josh. What the hell is going on? What do they want??” And then the rata-tat-tat-tat stopped.

It wasn’t the first time a stranger had shown up at the door and scared the shit out of her. The other time was more than ten years ago, when I found myself in role of government witness in a case against a bunch of financial scam artists running a multi-million dollar bogus securities scheme. One of the gang’s leaders had duped a client of mine, and since I was the introducing broker, I took it upon myself to track down the evil-doers when it was obvious that the Feds were moving in slow motion. It turned out to be a nationwide network that was co-managed by one very sleazy lawyer with a gambling problem and his partner, the disinherited heir to a multi-million real estate fortune. The disinheirited guy had a problem controlling his fingers; when they weren’t being used to peel assets from his father’s company, they were busy shoveling cocaine into his nose. With help from Seth Tucker, a close friend and neighbor that was a Managing Partner at [might as well be consistent] Knoll Associates, I did my own sleuthing and managed to follow the trail of my client’s money, which the rogue lawyer embezzled from his escrow account, and then wired to a bunch of wannabe hoods in Albany, NY. With my insight, the feds ultimately rounded all of them up, and I became a quasi hero, and the AUSA’s leading witness. A few days before the trial, a big goon showed up at our house, just as Lorna was getting our daughter ready for kindergarten. He first pretended to be looking for another address, and before he turned to leave, he said “Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Berman, and tell Josh that I hope everything is good with him.”

When Lorna called me then to tell me what happened then, I was more pissed off than I was scared. She was scared too, but even more pissed off than I was. She didn’t flinch before starting to blast me for quitting the “great job” I had been offered after the buyout of my Dad’s firm several years before, and for since getting mixed up with a bunch of crazy people. Instead of calling the Feds, I quickly dialed up my pal Seth, a Managing Partner at Knoll, the world-famous corporate gumshoes, and he simply said “What a bunch of schmucks. Don’t worry, Josh, since I helped you track them down in the first place, I’ll have one of our guys look into it this”.

You’d have to know Seth and his background to appreciate that ‘looking into” something usually meant turning the world upside down until he found the culprit. And then, he’d turn the culprit upside down and inside out. Captain of his high school wrestling team in Garden City, NY, Seth had won a scholarship to Cornell, and went on to NYU Law School, and then he went straight into the Bronx County DA’s office, where he soon ran all of the mob prosecutions in that borough. After five years, he became known as a current day Elliot Ness, and was appointed by NYC Mayor Ed Koch to spearhead a special, city-wide organized crime task force. Within twelve months, Seth had been credited with the indictments of three dozen mobsters, but prosecuting mobsters had its drawbacks, not the least of which was the paltry salary, and Seth didn’t need to think about it twice when Jimmy Knoll tapped him to join his firm with a Managing Director title, a mid-six figure salary, and stock options that would ultimately be worth more than $10 million.

Aside from the money, Knoll’s resources were incomparable to what Seth had to work with while a municipal employee; and Knoll’s outfit uses a much different and more creative approach to solving problems. It took his firm less than 48 hours to properly address the incident that had unfolded at my home. And right now, Lorna’s live action episode was eliciting the same kind of fear and anger, prompting me wonder whether I’d have to pick up the Bat Phone to enlist Seth’s help..

In response to her $64,000 question, “What did they want?” the only thing I could think of to say was “They’re just standing in the driveway right now??”

“Yes… no… wait, one of them is walking back to the door…Should I open it?”

I tried to be calm, yet in control. “First, what are they wearing? Second, what kind of car are they driving? And can you see the plates?” I figured if they were real government cops, they’d at least be wearing jackets and ties, and their car would most likely be a typical unmarked Ford, or a Chevy, and should have some kind of Government tags. If they were wearing leather jackets and driving a shiny black Caddy, or who knows what, I’d tell her to hit the panic button on the alarm system in the hallway, double bolt the door, than grab our daughter and lock themselves in the basement until the Westport cops showed up with Glochs in hand.

She was getting exasperated with my answering her questions with my own questions. “They’re wearing jackets and ties, Josh. The car is just sitting there, it’s a blue or black four door; it’s too dark outside to tell. I think the license plates are from New York, but I can’t read it from here.” Based on Lorna’s brief description, it sounded like these guys were who they claimed to be. Although I was relieved that Lorna didn’t appear to be in any kind of imminent danger, I was getting dizzy with nausea.

“I don’t know what’s going on, Lorna; I’m sure its nothing. Just relax,” I said.

Of course, I didn’t believe that for a second. With the rash of white collar prosecutions taking place, and the front page perp shot photos and accompanying stories, it rare that the FBI shows up at someone’s house at 7 am unless they are a target of something. Before I could say anything else, I could hear a voice in the background. Lorna had opened the door, but she had wisely kept the chain bolt in place, and one of the “Feebs” was talking to her. It took him about thirty seconds to relay his message.

“Josh, he said something about having tried to find you at The Bank, and he wants you to call him right now. He gave me a cell number for you to call him.”

What the fuck were two FBI agents doing looking for me? Why were they looking for me at The Bank? I hadn’t worked there in over four years!

After she gave me the phone number, I told her to close the door, lock it and try to relax. I told her that I’d call the number and get the whole thing straightened out. After she insisted that I call her right back to tell her what happened, I hung up the phone and glanced around and noticed that other than Mario, the firm’s order clerk and all purpose gopher, the trading floor was empty of people. The daily morning meeting had already started in the conference room, and since I wasn’t in attendance, it would be a problem I’d have to deal with later.

Mario looked up at me. A 25 year old Puerto Rican that stood no taller than 5’6”, and weighed in at a muscular 180 lbs; he could easily pick up my lanky 5’10, 155 lb frame with one hand and toss me casually if he wanted to, and even my two years of kick boxing lessons in the firm’s private gym wouldn’t have moved him two feet.

Mario was sitting twenty feet away, at a spot on the convertible bond desk. He was pretending to be focused on resolving the morning “out trades”, which are trades from the previous day that for one reason or another didn’t get processed correctly. I had befriended, or actually adopted, Mario shortly after I had come on board. He was a runner for the firm, which is parlance for messenger, and after a few chats with him in the elevator, he struck me as a good guy and a hard worker. When he had told me that he was the sole earner in a household that included his ailing grandmother and 12 year old brother, and that he was taking night classes so he could one day become a trader or a bond salesman, I sponsored him for a clerkship on the trading desk.

I had always made it a practice to mentor support staff; it keeps morale high, ensures loyalty, and it’s a great way to develop and custom-mold potential junior traders and brokers. It’s fair to say that at least half a dozen former clerks that I’ve spotted early on are now running trading desks at different firms across Wall Street, and more than a few of them attribute their career success to me. I liked Mario from the start; he was hungry, honorable, and because he was street-wise, I instinctively knew that he was the kind of guy that could keep his ears open, his mouth shut, and if likes you, his eyes on your back, just in case someone had put a target on it. Wall Street firms can be a combative place, with lots of internal turf wars, so it’s always wise to keep a few commandos on active duty, one of the many lessons that Mario didn’t need to be taught.

When I put the phone back on the receiver, Mario glanced up from the stack of papers on his desk, and our eyes locked for a brief second. At less than seven yards away in an empty trading room, an environment that is purposefully constructed with enhanced acoustics, one didn’t need to be able to read lips to have gotten the gist of my conversation with Lorna. Comments like “Did he show you ID? And, “What kind of car are they driving?” could have been easily explained away to someone less worldly as “Jeez. My wife had a fender bender this morning…”

But Mario wasn’t a moron, or less worldly. He’d spent two decades growing up in Spanish Harlem, and knew more about getting jacked up and into jams than Alan Greenspan knows about global interest rates. But I didn’t have time to dwell on what Mario might have overheard, I had a big problem on my hands, so I just gave him a wink, rolled my eyes and shook my head in exasperation, and said, “Mario, whatever you do, don’t get married!”, as if the conversation that he clearly overheard was simply some kind of insignificant marital issue.

Than I sat at my desk, logged on to Google and did a reverse look-up of the phone number Lorna gave me, to see if I could back trace the number. It had a 516 pre-fix, the area code for Long Island. No results. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as cell phones numbers had yet to find their way into any public registry system. Anxious to get to the bottom of this, I took a deep breath, and dialed the number from the Centrex line, which is programmed to block the display of Caller ID to the recipient, a strategy designed to lower the obstacles for salesman when smiling and dialing into their portfolio manager customers.

After the first ring, a voice answered with “Hello, Mr. Berman. Thank you for calling.”

Already indignant that someone had intruded on the privacy of my home and unnerved my wife, I said “Since you already know who I am, perhaps you can please tell me who you are?”

“Of course, Mr. Berman. This is Special Agent Tru-hillo of the FBI”, he said, as if he were a car salesman. “You’re a hard fellow to locate. We tried looking for you at The Bank’s office in Greenwich, and were told you didn’t work there anymore. And then your wife wouldn’t tell us where you work. We need to see you.”

Not only did this guy’s comments and voice come fully-equipped with a built-in attitude, the fact that he suggested that I was “hard to locate” told me I was dealing with a complete moron doing double duty as a smart ass. Osama Bin Laden is a “hard fellow to locate”, not I.

I hadn’t worked at the Bank in over four years; they had acquired a trading systems company that I had co-founded, and part of the deal included me becoming a VP of Marketing for the $25 Billion parent bank. Six months later, I was hired away by a Venture Capital firm with a compelling Interim CEO-title package to help turn around one of their publicly traded portfolio companies. A year after that, I was recruited back into the brokerage business, where I was head of marketing for a global, online trading firm, and after about a year into that gig, I was recruited by the honchos at RTM. And, each of those jobs included my having a pretty high profile; I had been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, Crains Business, and various industry rags no less than a dozen times, and at least half those articles profiled my current job at RTM. Even if I had a non-published home phone number, any idiot could have entered my name into Google and quickly learned where I worked and how to reach me.

This wasn’t my first interaction with a representative of law enforcement, feds or local. 90% of the time, my dealings had been related to social and/or professional situations. The 10% of the time where I had sat across the table, it was limited to the kind of episodes that many people encounter. I’d been pulled over for speeding more than twice in my life, so I knew that it was important to be respectful to police officers. And, after having to bail my idiot older brother out of a Chicago city jail on a possession charge back in the ‘80s, I learned that one also needs to be very, very deferential to cops; otherwise one can get lost in the system, and it could take days to find him. In the course of twenty plus years, there had also been lots of mainstream business transactions, where I had become acquainted with former government prosecutors that had gone into the private sector, including my close pal Seth from Knoll, who had often hired me on a consulting basis to work with former Feds and spooks from his firm on discreet assignments involving securities industry players. Those guys are a class act; very bright, and very good at what they do.

Adding to my rolodex of former and current badges is Mack Ferrino, long-time friend and Chief of Police for the town of Westport, CT. When Mack was a rookie 18 years earlier, he’d moonlight as a house sitter for us when we went on winter vacation. After he got married and had his first kid, Mack and his family would come to our pool, where the kids would swim together, the wives would banter, and “the boys” would grill steaks and swig beer. When my daughter turned 16, she briefly fell under the spell of a local loser who’d been thrown out of high school the year before. One night, Lorna had mystically woken up at 2 am to check on Charlie, and found her room was empty. It took me less than 10 minutes to crack the AOL Instant Message trail that Charlie had left on the home computer and realize that the bum had lured her to his house in the middle of the night. After informing Lorna what I had discovered, I then set out to rescue my little girl. It was Mack who found me pounding on the front door of the kid’s house at 3 am, and after he pried the baseball bat from my hands, he proceeded to resolve the situation discreetly, and saved me from a likely manslaughter charge. I’ve been contributing to the local PBA ever since.

All in, I generally have a lot of respect for cops, but I also know that “law enforcement” attracts a lot unqualified guys who get their rocks off from carrying a badge and having a gun strapped to their hip. And even though the FBI requires most of its agents to have a law degree, which supposedly ensures some degree of intellect, all one has to do is pick up a newspaper to learn that more than a few bad apples slip through the cracks of door of the Human Resources Department at the J.Edgar Hoover Building in Washington. Stupid and Smart Ass are a dangerous combination of ingredients; mix in a gun and a badge and it can become toxic, and I could almost smell the poisonous fumes right through the phone line.

After the Agent introduced himself, I quickly surmised that this guy fell into the bad apple bin. And contrary to better judgment, I went from being indignant to insouciant. “How can I help you, officer?” I replied.

“Mr. Berman, I have a letter on Bank stationery in my possession with your signature that makes reference to a Mr. Jake Bronstein. As far as we can tell, you’ve perpetrated a major bank fraud, involving tens of millions of dollars, and it’s imperative that we meet with you.”

The clock stopped, along with my heart beat. For a second, a million tiny specs of light overcame my brain, blinding my vision. Before today, I had only started to show a few gray hairs on the sides of my otherwise curly, brown-haired head, but the heightened electrical activity inside my cranium was no doubt speeding that process along.

Bank stationery and Jake Bronstein. This had to be a bad dream. In the small likelihood that the scene taking place was just a continuation of the same REM 6 nightmare that began with Lorna’s call, and before the Tiffany alarm clock next to my bed woke me up, I decided to play it out with an offensive strategy. After all, if it were make believe, when I woke up in a cold sweat, I’d at least enjoy the part where I handled the situation in a proactive manner.

“I’m about to walk into a meeting, Mr. Tru-hillo, and without knowing who you are, or what this is about, I’m going to have to ask you to give me your office number, and your badge number, and I’ll be happy to phone you later today.”

But the more the dialogue continued, I knew it wasn’t a dream. “Its Agent Truhillo..T-r-u-j-i-l-l-o.” It was nice of him to spell it for me. “I’m happy to fax the copy of this letter to your office right now, Mr. Berman, and then perhaps you’ll appreciate the need for us to meet immediately.”

This was becoming a ping pong match, and, as much as he was trying to rattle me, I returned the volley, but toned down the tenor, as I needed time to digest what was happening. I had to be nonchalant; he needed to know that his call was just another call in my very hectic schedule.

“Listen”, I politely suggested, “Like I said, I’m walking into a meeting right now, and than I have to interview someone. Why don’t you give me your office number, and I’ll be more than happy to call you back, let’s say ten o’clock.”

As if his paddle were hovering right over the net, he said, “OK, Mr. Berman. You can call me back at this number, but lets make sure that you call back no later than ten, OK?”, as if to imply that he’d be launching a Red Alert and sending in an anti-terrorist swat team to track me down one minute past ten.

I hung up the phone and looked over at Mario. His head was cowered over his stack of papers, and his eyeballs couldn’t have been more than six inches from the desk top. With palms flat on the desk, he tried to look as though he were totally transfixed in the course of microscopically examining the out trade report. I looked away from him, and back at the 21 inch computer monitor on my desk. The screen displaying my search query was now just a bunch of fuzzy images. I composed myself and glanced at my Rolex; holy shit…it was already 7.25, and I was 10 minutes late for the morning meeting.

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