2. THE TAPES
The defendants in the case – Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm – worked together at GE, which was competing for bond business against banks like Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. Carollo was the boss of Goldberg and Grimm, who handled the grunt work, submitting bids. Between August 1999 and November 2006, the three executives participated in countless rigged bids by telephone, conspiring with middleman brokers like Chambers, Dunhill and Rubin. We know this because prior to the start of the Carollo trial, 12 other individuals, including several brokers from CDR, had already pleaded guilty in a wide-ranging federal investigation.
How did the government manage to make a case against so many Wall Street scam artists? Hubris. As was the case in Jefferson County, Alabama, where Chase executives blabbed criminal conspiracies on the telephone even though they knew they were being recorded by their own company, the trio of defendants in Carollo wantonly fixed bond auctions despite the fact that their own firm was taping the conversations. Defense counsel even made an issue of this at trial, implying to the jury that nobody would be dumb enough to commit a crime by phone when "there was a big sticker on the phones that said all calls are being recorded," as Grimm's counsel, Mark Racanelli, put it. In fact, Racanelli argued, the conversations on the tapes hardly suggested a secret conspiracy, because "no one was whispering."
But the reason no one was whispering isn't that their actions weren't illegal – it's because the bid rigging was so incredibly common the defendants simply forgot to be ashamed of it. "The tapes illustrate the cavalier attitude which the financial community brought toward this behavior," says Michael Hausfeld, a renowned class-action attorney whose firm is leading a major civil suit against Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase and others for this same bid-rigging scam. "It became the predominant mode of transacting business."
How and when the government got hold of those tapes is still unclear; the prosecution is not commenting on the case, which remains an open investigation. But we do know that in November 2006, federal agents raided the offices of CDR, the broker firm that was working with Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm. Caught redhanded, many of the firm's top executives agreed to turn state's witness. One after another, these hangdog, pasty-faced men were led up to the stand by prosecutors and forced to recount how they'd been snatched up in the raid, separated and blitz-interviewed by FBI agents, and plunged into years of nut-crushing negotiations, which resulted in almost all of them pleading guilty. Prosecutors would eventually accumulate 570,000 recorded phone conversations, and to decipher them they worked these cooperating witnesses like sled dogs, driving them in for dozens of meetings and grilling them about the details of the scam.
The state's first witness, confusingly, was a CDR broker named Doug Goldberg (no relation to the defendant Steven Goldberg). Almost every executive involved in the trial was absurdly young; many were just out of college when the bid-rigging scam started in the late Nineties. Doug Goldberg graduated from USC in 1993, and his fellow CDR executive Evan Zarefsky still looks to be about 15 years old, suggesting a suit-and-tie version of Napoleon Dynamite. The extreme youth of some of the conspirators was an obvious subtext of the trial, underscoring the fact that far more senior executives from bigger banks like Chase and Bank of America had been permitted by the government to evade testifying.
Right off the bat, in fact, Doug Goldberg explained that while at CDR, he had routinely helped the cream of Wall Street rig bids on municipal bonds by letting them take a peek at other bids:
Q: Who were some of the providers you gave last looks to?
A: There was a whole host of them, but GE Capital, FSA, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Société Générale, Lehman Brothers, Bear. There were others.
Goldberg went on to testify that he repeatedly rigged auctions with the three defendants. Sometimes he gave them "last looks" so they could shave basis points off their winning bids; other times he asked them to intentionally submit losing offers – called cover bids – to allow other firms to win. He told the court he knew he was being recorded by GE. When asked how he knew that, he drew one of the trial's rare laughs by answering, "Either they told me or some of them, like Société Générale, you can hear the beeping."
Because of the recordings, he went on, he and the defendants used "guarded language."
"I might tell him, if I'm looking for an intentionally losing bid, 'I need a bid,' or something like that," he said.
Q: With whom specifically did you use this guarded type of language?
A: With Steve Goldberg and others.
Q: In your dealings with Steve Goldberg, what, if any, language or other signal did he use that you understood as a request for a last look?
A: He might ask me where I "saw the market," or he might ask me for, as I mentioned, an "indication of where the market is," an "idea of the market."
The broker went on to detail how he had worked with the GE executives to manipulate a number of auctions. In several cases, he was pushed to make deals with GE by his boss at CDR, Stewart Wolmark, who seemed smitten with GE's Steve Goldberg; jurors listening to the tapes couldn't miss the pair's nauseatingly tight, cash-fueled bromance. In December 2000, for instance, Wolmark helped Goldberg win a rigged bid for a bond in Onondaga County, New York. After the auction, he calls his buddy Steve:
WOLMARK: Hey, congratulations. You got another one.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
WOLMARK: You're hot!
GOLDBERG: I'm hot? Hot with your help, sir.
Later on, Wolmark basically tells Goldberg he owes a service to his fellow gangster. "I deserve the big lunch now," Wolmark chirps.
"Yeah," says Goldberg. "I owe you something, huh?"
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