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The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia

Page 4 of 7

A few months later, in March 2001, Wolmark and Goldberg do another deal, this time for a $219 million construction bond for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Wolmark rings up his payola paramour and scolds him for not calling him during a recent trip to Vegas, where Goldberg doubtless spent a nice chunk of the money Wolmark had helped him steal from places like Onondaga County.

"Good time in Vegas, you can't even call me back?" Wolmark laments.

"I don't have time to sleep in Vegas," Goldberg says suggestively.

"There's sleeping," Stewart Wolmark chides, "and there's Stewart."

From there, the clothes just start flying off as the pair jump into a steamy negotiation over the monster Allegheny deal. "I'm all set with $200 million," Goldberg says. "Everything's ready to go."

Then Wolmark asks if GE is ready to pay CDR its bribe. "You got some swaps coming up?"

Goldberg assures him they do. Wolmark then passes the deal off to his own Goldberg, Doug, who handles the actual auction.

When prosecutors tried to explain these telephone auctions at trial, projecting the transcripts of the calls on a huge movie screen set up across the courtroom from the jury, you could see the sheer bewilderment on the jurors' faces. The men on the tapes seemed to be speaking a language from another planet – an insanely dry and boring planet, where there's no color and no adverbs, maybe, and babies are made by rubbing two calculators together. One of the jurors, an older white man, spent the first few days of the trial yawning repeatedly, fighting a heroic battle to stay awake in the face of all the mind-numbing jargon about Guaranteed Investment Contracts. "Who needs Lunesta," joked one lawyer who attended the proceedings, "when you can hear a lawyer talk about GICs right out of the gate?"

The language of the auctions was a kind of intellectual camouflage. If you didn't listen closely, you'd have thought the two Goldbergs were a couple of airmen exchanging weather balloon data, rather than two Wall Street executives plotting a crime to rip off the good citizens of Allegheny County. In that deal, Steve Goldberg of GE originally bid "503, 4" on the $219 mil­lion bond, only to be guided downward by Doug Goldberg of CDR. The broker explained in court:

Q: Can you explain what you understood Mr. Goldberg to say when he was saying 503, 4? What was he bidding?
A:
That was the rate he was willing to bid on this investment agreement.
Q: How much was it?
A:
5.04 percent.
Q:
What did you do as a response to his bid of 5.04 percent?
A:
I brought his bid down to 5.00 percent.

In other words, even though GE was willing to pay an interest rate of 5.04 percent, Allegheny County ended up earning just 5.00 percent on its $219 million bond. How much money that amounted to is difficult to calculate, given the way the bond account diminished each year as the county used it to pay contractors; even Doug Goldberg couldn't put a number on the scam. But if the account was full at the start of the deal, GE may have cheated the county out of as much as $87,600 a year to start.

In any case, GE certainly chiseled the Pennsylvanians out of a sizable sum, because soon after, the company paid CDR a kickback of $57,400 in the form of "fees" on a swap deal. The whole deal pleased CDR's higher-ups. "I went to Stewart Wolmark and told him that not only did Steve Goldberg win but that I was able to reduce his rate down four basis points," said Doug Goldberg. "Stewart was very happy and excited."

Over and over again, jurors heard cooperating witnesses translate the damning audiotapes. In one lurid sequence, the bat-eared, bespectacled CDR broker Evan Zarefsky explained how he helped the GE defendant Peter Grimm win a bid for a bond put out by the Utah Housing Authority. The pair had apparently reamed Utah so many times that it had become a sort of inside joke between the two of them. From a call in August 2001:

GRIMM: Utah, let's see, how we look on that?
ZAREFSKY: Good old Utah!

Grimm complains about how much he'll have to pay to win the deal. "These levels are really shitty," he says.

Zarefsky comforts him. "Well, I can probably save you a couple of bucks here," he says.

From there, Grimm rattles off numbers, ultimately settling on a bid of 351 – 3.51 percent. Zarefsky, in almost motherly fashion, guides the manic Grimm downward, telling him, in code, that his bid is 10 basis points too high. "You actually got like a dime in there," Zarefsky says. "You want to come down a dime?"

So Grimm comes back with a bid of 3.41 percent, which turned out to be the winning bid. Utah lost out on 10 basis points, GE bilked the state out of untold sums, and CDR got another nice kickback.

This, basically, is how a lot of the calls went. The provider would tentatively offer a number, and the broker would guide him to a new bid. "You have a little bit of room there," he might say, or "That's gonna put you about a nickel short." Guiding the bidders to the lowest possible bid was called "figuring out the level" or being "in the market"; obtaining information about other bids was called "giving an indicative" or "seeing the market."

The brokers and providers used a dizzying array of methods for rigging deals. In some cases, the broker helped the "winner" by simply excluding other bidders, who may or may not have been in on the scam. In one hilarious sequence that sounds like something out of a wiretap of a Little Italy social club, CDR executive Dani Naeh tells GE's Steve Goldberg that he's not sure he can guarantee a win on a bid for a New Jersey hospital bond. There were too many triple-A-rated companies interested in the bond, Naeh explains, and he couldn't control their bids the way he could those of the lesser, double-A-rated companies he usually did business with. "It would be easier for us to contact other providers who were rated double-A and ask them to submit an intentionally losing bid," Naeh testified. He sounded exactly like a mobster, talking about "our guys" and "our friends."

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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