Sunday, October 19, 2003
In "Con Men," editor Ian Jackman has assembled some amazing and amusing tales about the best swindlers and scoundrels who have been interviewed and profiled on television's "60 Minutes."
The show has featured an impressive cast of tricksters, from forgers of paintings and manuscripts to the "cellblock millionaire" who sold $300 million worth of cocaine and crack each year from his jail cell.
The curious thing about these stories is that in some cases, the confidence men come off looking no worse than their victims.
One example is the case of "Bishop" Kirby Hensley. He acknowledged on "60 Minutes" that he was "a con man" and "every other fellow that I come in contact with is a con man. When I give a fellow an Honorary Doctor of Divinity, it's just a little piece of paper."
Why do so many people want to become men and women of the cloth? Because tax laws allow deductions for churches and clergy. In 1976, "60 Minutes" reporter Morley Safer found that "thousands of people, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants alike, were embracing a second religion in order to take advantage of tax concessions."
And while some of the book's characters could have come straight from the pages of a Damon Runyon short story, others seem to have emerged from the corporate culture of the 1990s. Such a case is that of Nick Leeson, who, in 1995 at age 28, single-handedly destroyed one of the most venerable financial institutions of Great Britain, the Barings Bank. Its losses totaled more than $1 billion.
Two things stand out in this tale of greed and deception. One is Leeson's insistence that he did not profit by even a penny. The other is the reason the fraud went unnoticed for years -- Leeson was dealing in derivatives, and "the senior executives didn't know enough about derivatives to figure out what was going on."
In the classic 1940 book "The Big Con," David W. Maurer wrote that the confidence man is the aristocrat of the underworld, a man "who prospers only because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victim."
"Con Men" is further proof of that statement.