Thoughts On The Grift

Given the interest in the subject, it is strange that there is not a more fully-developed literature of the con, the uniquely American–or is it?–storytelling with a purpose, that is, to divest the unwary of their cash.

There is, of course, Jim Thompson’s The Grifters and the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film, The Sting. Wasn’t the fence painting in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer a tale of grift? But given the prevalence of the subject in real life, one would think that stories about grifting, whether high or low, would be afforded their own literary genre.

There is a rich vein of such stories to be mined–they are never-ending. In modern times, one might be tempted to begin with Charles Ponzi, but there is so much more. There’s Zzzz Best Carpet Cleaning, the salad oil scandal. Anna Delvey a/k/a Anna Sorokin (Netflix’s Inventing Anna). There’s even a Vietnamese Anna, Tina Duong, who hired extras to portray wealthy relatives she did not have and an aging soap opera actor to give her away at a trigamous wedding to a young man who had failed to do due diligence.

There’s Samuel Bankman-Fried and Bernie Madoff; Jho Low and Elizabeth Holmes. Let’s not forget Ft. Lauderdale lawyer, political donor and University of Miami booster Scott Rothstein. His scam was discounting non-existent settlements to investors, promising a high rate of return. Until the scam was uncovered, he was regularly consulted by those who make our laws and granted sideline access to football games, perhaps an even greater honor in Florida. He flew to Morocco on a private jet after tasking the firm’s associates to come up with a list of countries that had no extradition treaty with the United States. Instead of flying to Israel, where he might have been safe, he returned to Florida and a long prison sentence.

Remembering other South Florida lawyers caught up in such matters, the bankruptcy of ESM Government securities caused a run on Ohio banks and led to the suicide of Stephen Arky, who claimed innocence. At least suicide removed the possibility of his indictment.

The point of all of this is that I am extremely cautious when it comes to deals which promise much but which are not conventional. There’s always an explanation. I am particularly sensitive to the possibility of the grift. I am not special when it comes to the con; people have tried to con me in the past. There have been times when I cursed my naïveté for almost falling for a scam.

One of the characteristics of a scam is that the terms of the deal are always changing. Experts and consultants are never fully paid. The bare minimum is rationed to keep them from resigning–and they are usually never the first firm brought on board.

To represent my clients effectively, I have to believe them. Once I know they are lying, I am no longer capable of convincing others that their story is true. Paradoxically, this means that to be effective I seek to have as little contact with my clients as possible. For me, “spin” does not make a story better or more palatable. When my client spun a detail, I always assumed it was to cover a lie.

For a while I had an office in an outbuilding at 1870 S. Bayshore Drive, a converted mansion in Miami. There was a staircase leading to the second floor; my office was on the first. The groundskeeper brought his teenage boys to help him and they would often relax, sitting on the stairs. One day I saw several spark plugs there and wondered what the boys were doing with them. I later found out that spark plugs are used by thugs to break windows of cars. If the thugs are stopped by the police, a spark plug is a dual use, and so an innocent item, that by itself is not probable cause for arrest. I felt the fool and never looked on his children in the same way again.

On another occasion I flew to Atlanta for a parole hearing. My client had promised to pay me, after he was released on parole. Surely he would be back on the street and be able to get funds owed to him so as to pay me. His parole was denied and I wasn’t paid. In another case, my client had shot a man after a drug delivery was botched. By the beginning of that death-penalty eligible first-degree murder case I still hadn’t been paid. “Did you bring the check?” I asked the family. There was no answer. I tried that case just to stay in shape, but it was my choice.

So I am particularly sensitive to clients that have not paid. I don’t even like wasting time talking about clients who will pay, who are going to pay, how payment is just a moment away especially when these discussions take place months after payment was due.

They talk about how Steve Jobs had a “reality distortion field,” but Jobs had–though he put it to legitimate use–what all grifters share: a storytelling expertise that would put Hemingway to shame, the ability to describe dreams with such detail that they seem real, so real that they become real until that inevitable moment when harsh reality shows the dream to be but an illusion.

Really, what is more American than the grift? George Santos “embellished” his resumé, not worrying about the fact that identity politics trumps even outright lies. Santos claims to be Jewish, biracial, and finding one box unchecked, gay. He is Latino enough and there are Holocaust survivors, albeit imaginary ones, in his family tree. A claimed 9/11 death in the family makes up for a lack of military service, and when the New York Times finally looked into his background and uncovered his failure to graduate from college only means the fact that he is a high-school dropout was lost in the noise. Shilling for sympathy, Santos had his mother die twice. He started a charity for animals and pocketed the cash, knowing that dogs and cats can’t file fraud complaints. He is an accomplished shameless liar, as any good grifter must be. None of this prevented his election to the 117th Congress. If anything, he is the perfect candidate.