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The Felon Index

Sizing up America's other national pastime.

Every sport generates its champions — and enough blowhard fans who spend endless amounts of time arguing in bars over who was the greatest. Take baseball. Here in San Francisco, we're riveted by Barry Bonds. Naturally, it has been argued that he is better than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays.

Me? I point to a simple metric. Take the number of at-bats for each player, divide by home runs belted and voilà — an elegant ranking order emerges. At 13.7 at-bats per home run, Bonds, while ahead of Mays and Aaron, is still loping behind the Babe, who went yard every 11.8 at bats.

At my pub, talk of baseball has been recently supplanted by chatter about corporate scandals. Mouths are agape at the size of the alleged chicaneries — a $3.8 billion Adelphia piggy bank here, $7.1 billion in jugglery on WorldCom's books there. Then came the charges that Tyco's top two executives reaped $600 million through stock fraud, unauthorized bonuses and falsified expense accounts. As with baseball, the players are being analyzed by bystanders in bars.

“Those Rigases,” says one patron. “Biggest crooks in the world.”

“Get outta here! Those WorldCom guys are worse,” another shoots back.

To help explain the relative “greatness” of some corporate frauds, I propose to apply the same metrics that I use in baseball. I've come up with what I call the Felon Index. I ranked a group of famed corporate crooks to see how the current crop of alleged scamsters measures up to their predecessors. To compute the rankings, merely divide the amount of dollars swindled by the amount of time spent in jail. Thus, the higher the index number, the more money stolen and less time served — the more the guy got away with.

Take Charles Ponzi's illegal arbitrage of international postal reply coupons in 1920. Ponzi sucked in $10 million and funneled back $8 million in dividends to investors before his bubble burst. Inflating investor losses of $2 million to present-day value, let's say the scheme ripped off the equivalent of $17.9 million. Ponzi eventually served a five-year stretch in the federal pen for his exploits, giving him a reading of 3.6 on the Felon Index.

Tino De Angelis earned fame as the “salad oil king” in 1963 for his scheme that squeezed $200 million ($1.2 billion inflation adjusted) from banks and brokerages. It also bought him a seven-year prison term. Tino earns an impressive inflation-adjusted 166.9 mark on the Felon Index for his work at Allied Crude Vegetable Oil.

A Valhalla of the Vile/Here are the Felon Index rankings:
Scammer $mm (adjusted for inflation) years served in prison Felon Index Score
1. Bernie Cornfeld (1970) $2,305 0.92 2,514.5
2. Michael Milken (1986) $1,630 3 543.3
3. Tino De Angelis (1963) $1,170 7 167.1
4. Stanley Goldblum (1973) $1,209 8 151.1
5. Ivan Boesky (1986) $163 1.83 89.1
6. Barry Minkow (1989) $151 5 30.2
7. Charles Ponzi (1920) $ 17.9 5 3.6
Current bidders for top honors on the Felon Index certainly have their work cut out for them if they want to beat out this crew.

Bernie Cornfeld, founder of fund-of-funds Investors Overseas Services, ran his empire from Geneva, tantalizingly beyond U.S. regulatory reach. He raised more than $300 million, mostly from U.S. ex-pats and military folk, before IOS imploded in 1970. Bernie bailed out, rescued by his buddy, Robert Vesco, who remains a fugitive. Losses, after Vesco's own plunder, amounted to $500 million (about $2.3 billion today). The cost to Bernie was only 11 months in a Swiss slammer, giving him a whopping 2,558.7 score.

By 1973, Equity Funding's decade-old investment package of mutual funds and life insurance wasn't raking in the bucks president Stanley Goldblum wanted. To inflate earnings, Goldblum's minions took to scamming insurance companies and auditors by falsifying policies. When the swindle collapsed, investors lost $300 million ($1.2 billion inflation adjusted) and Goldblum won eight years in the pokey. Give Stanley a 670.8 mark.

Who can forget Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, who brought down Drexel Burnham Lambert in 1986? Boesky's insider trading cost him 22 months in prison and $100 million in fines, an amount said to equal his ill-gotten gains ($163 million in today's money). Milken's reign as the “junk bond king” merited a three-year sabbatical in the calaboose and $1 billion in fines and restitution (for $1.63 billion in ill-gotten gains in today's money). Score 32.6 for Boesky and 543.5 for Milken.

Barry Minkow was a teenage prodigy. By 1988, Minkow had turned nothing into, well, nothing. Minkow propped up his ZZZZ Best carpet-cleaning outfit by booking bogus insurance contract revenue. When the sham unraveled, shareholders and creditors were left holding a $100 million carpetbag ($108 million adjusted for inflation). Minkow, paroled after serving five years, clocks in with a 30.2 reading.

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