Sunday, January 27, 2008

White Collar Crime Fiction

by Libby Hellmann

There’s been a story in the news that reminds me why I write crime fiction. I'd like to say this story could only happen in Chicago, but of course that’s not true-- it could happen anywhere. But maybe not with the chutzpah and swagger we associate with the city of Big Shoulders.

It seems as if a few Cook County officials stole 1.6 million dollars in loans and federal money that was intended to train people to become carpenters. The thieves ran the President’s Office of Employment Training, POET, (ironic, no?) a federally funded jobs training program for the county.

Oh.. the Mayor’s office was tangentially involved, too. POET set up a dummy vendor, United Front, which was given a bunch of money from both the Mayor’s office and the Cook County Housing Authority. Unfortunately, the training sites United Front set up were “empty shells:” no equipment, no teachers, nothing. Except that United did go to the trouble of forging student signatures and falsifying paperwork to continue the stream of money.

But here’s the thing. It wasn’t as if United Front has an unblemished record. One of its officials was convicted of arson and fraud 15 years ago – Yes, that’s 15 years go -- to cover up theft. And a former POET fiscal manager was charged three years ago with embezzling nearly $200K.

All in all, over half a dozen people were charged, and while I’m shocked – shocked -- at the corruption and fraud, not to mention the turn-the-other-cheek mentality, I’m also fascinated. Who were these officials? Was simple greed what motivated them, particularly when they had to know the people at United Front weren’t (Ok, I can’t resist) “front and center?” Or was it something else? Maybe an official was in debt to the wrong people. Maybe someone’s spouse or kid had an out of control drug habit. Maybe someone needed money to pay for a medical procedure that wasn’t covered. What makes a professional commit a crime – and so brazenly?

White collar crime and the people who commit it are pretty much what I write about. Three of my novels deal with real estate fraud of one type or another, including EASY INNOCENCE (out in April… more about it later). Partly that’s because it’s familiar– my family has been in commercial real estate on the East Coast, and I've absorbed the basics over years of dinner table conversations. I understand the boom or bust cycles… the pressure… the risks… the pride.

When it’s done right, real estate development is every bit as creative as writing a novel…you’re creating something worthwhile where nothing existed before. (Sunday’s Chicago Tribune notwithstanding.) At the same time the possibilities to cut corners are legion. Maybe it’s slipping in sub-standard materials to save time and money. Maybe it’s greasing a palm for an official approval or environmental “clean bill of health.” Maybe it’s making sure the construction crews are available when you need them, or maybe it’s just out and out soaking investors without any return.

It goes without saying that my family wears a white hat when it comes to real estate. Still, I’m attracted to the dark side. What makes a person cross the line? Are unions threatening to strike? Are cost-overruns threatening to destroy the project? Or is it simply the personality of the individuals? I know these people. I grew up with them. They’re my neighbors. What happened? Did I miss something? What made them turn? Those are the things I think about when I’m writing and plotting, and – er – developing a book.

A quick search of the news reveals a rich tapestry of white collar crime. In Europe, there’s the “rogue” French trader who committed fraud to the tune of more than $7 billion…

In Los Angeles federal agents raided several Southern California museums searching for Southeast Asian antiquities that were stolen and smuggled into the U.S...

And although he’s not strictly white collar, there’s former cop Drew Peterson, who’s out-OJ’ing the Juice in outrageous behavior following the death and disappearance of two wives.

Who is this French man? He’s only 31. What went wrong? What about the art smugglers? And the collectors? Why did they risk their careers? Was it that lucrative? And what kind of creepy narcissist is Peterson? Is he going to skate?

I wonder… then I write.

What about you, Outfit readers? Is there a certain type of crime – or criminal – that calls to you?

5 comments:

Dana King said...

I used to be a straight up murder mystery kind of guy, but that has changed. The crimes that fascinate me now, and draw me to write about them more every day, are those that take place right under our noses, and are tolerated by the public. There could be no organized crime without the tacit complicity of the general public. Their main cash cows are still vices; who are they providing those services for? This is why the mob has loved construction for so long. Too many places for money to have to unofficially change hands, and it all comes out in the wash.

I read part of the Tribune's article ysterday about aldermen and zoning variances. (Saved it for future fodder.) This appears to be the bone Daley's office has thrown them for emasculating them in so many other ways. It can't have been a big secret, not as common as it is.

Otherwise law-abiding people buying watches, televisions, whatever, at well below retail from less than reputable merchants. Where do they think this merchandise came from? Bootleg DVDs? Gucci knockoffs?

What I think your post shows more than anything is that anyone who questions whether things are as bad as they're portrayed in The Wire just isn't paying attention.

Maryann Mercer said...

What has never ceased to amaze me is embezzlement. In my 33 years of banking, I have never been able to wrap my mind around just how someone comes up with 'the plan'. I know it's been done; I've worked with people who have been caught doing it (and for a pittance not worth even the fine and ruin of reputation not to mention jail time). I almost want to applaud the genius of the banker who (back in the day) waltzed out of a Chicago bank the Friday of a Labor Day weekend with a goodly sum hidden under a tray of lottery tickets...even if it's an urban legend, it shows creativity.:o) Most other attempts don't fare as well.
I also admit to a fondness for unsolved crimes(cold cases)...for example, I don't believe the killer of the Grimes sisters was ever caught(correct me if I'm wrong). That was a big event in my young life. And fifties espionage...before all the checks and balances in security.
Good job, Libby...you made me think outside my writing preference to what I call guilty pleasures :o)

Libby said...

Thanks, Dana and Maryann, for your thoughtful comments. You're right, Dana, that the crimes I find most fascinating are the ones closest to my own experience... and yes, as long as someone gambles,gets high, or visits a hooker, there is always going to be a tacit complicity...

MAryAnn... I'm fascinated by unsolved crimes also. They say the PErcy girl's murder has been solved. I dont see it. And then, of course, there's Drew Peterson.... let's hope they solve that one before he gets more outrageous.

Maryann Mercer said...

Libby-are you thinking that Drew Peterson is the first of this century's OJ's? I am...which means that even if he skates on the deaths of wives three and four, something will rise up and bite him on the butt...it finally happened to The Juice. Justice arrives in strange ways.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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