Sunday, August 12, 2018

Nincompoopery Redefined

Rep. Chris Collins from an upstate New York district near Buffalo is in major hot water, according to a recently unsealed 10-count, 30-page indictment from the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Allegedly, he tipped off his son to inside information before it was publicly disclosed about the failed drug trial of an Australian biotech company’s only drug with any prospects of success.

Ironically, or sadly, or pathetically, or outrageously, or all of the aforementioned, Collins was at the time the largest shareholder and a board member of the company, Innate Immunotheraputics Limited. He was also on a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees the healthcare and drug industries and had been under investigation for months by the Congressional Ethics Office as a result of serving on the company’s board and promoting its prospects. To make matters worse, he allegedly lied to the FBI about the whole thing.

Whew. If all this is true, Collins is about the biggest nincompoop in Washington. (Well, maybe the second biggest.) That’s a photo of Collins at left from his Facebook page, showing him at a recent constituent event holding a plate of fried dough. Fried dough is exactly what he’ll be if the U.S. Attorney has the goods on him. And it sounds like it does.

The indictment says that after Collins’ tip his son, Cameron, sold almost 1.4 million shares of Innate in 54 trades starting the next morning, avoiding some $570,000 of losses he otherwise would have incurred when the stock tanked over 92% the day the failed drug trial was announced. Cameron is also under indictment for passing on the insider info to his fiancé’s father, Stephen Zarsky, his fiancé and other of their relatives and friends, who also sold their stock and avoided close to $200,000 in losses.

All that is documented in the indictment by emails, texts, phone records and stock trading data. That includes the email Collins got from Innate’s CEO saying the drug failed the trial while Collins was on the South Lawn of the White House attending the annual Congressional Picnic. It includes Collins’ email back saying, “Wow. How are these results even possible???” It also includes records of Collins’ frantic seven phone calls to Cameron, in the last of which he finally got through to him. Also the substance of a phone call from Zarsky to one of his tippees, a longstanding friend in which he said Cameron intended to buy a house so he would have an ostensible excuse for the timing of his trades if he were ever asked about them (Cameron is also indicted for lying to the FBI). Ditto a press release Collins had his staff release, stating that Cameron sold his stock only after a halt on its trading had been lifted, and at “substantial financial loss.”

Collins & Son and Zarsky are all named in the indictment that alludes to six other unindicted co-conspirators (Zarsky’s wife, daughter, two brothers and that longstanding friend, and a friend of Cameron and his fiancé). I stress unindicted, because if the U.S. Attorney’s previous modus operandi—and that of any other methodical prosecutor—is any guide, it started at the bottom and got the six minnows to flip by squeezing them into ratting out the bigger fish.

One of my first novels, Bull Street, is about an insider trading ring, and I never would have put a character in it who behaved as idiotically as Collins is alleged to because nobody would believe it.

A few years ago I wrote a blog entitled You Can’t Make This Stuff Up on the psychology of insider traders based on my experience on Wall Street. They seem to have no shame or no memory of previous convictions for the crime. The practice will go on forever.

And they’ll keep getting caught. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern district of New York has a winning record in getting convictions for insider trading. They’re the guys who sent Ivan Boesky, Marty Siegel, Dennis Levine and Mike Milken to jail in the 1980s. Preet Bharara, the previous U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, won over 85 insider trading cases in a row at one point. They don’t go to a grand jury unless they’ve got the goods. Collins’ tip to his son occurred over a year ago, the FBI took until April of this year to interview Collins & Son and Zarsky, and the U.S. Attorney until now to indict them. They’re efficient, systematic and relentless. Usually when they surface, where there’s smoke there’s fire.

In the few days since his indictment, Collins has been kicked off the Energy and Commerce Committee and suspended his re-election campaign for his House seat in November. “Meritless,” is what Collins has called the charges. We’ll see. Unless Collins has redefined the word.

He may also have redefined the word “nincompoopery.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Styles in the Driver's Seat

Sometimes a pitbull just needs to take charge. 

Last winter, Styles felt that way when we drove out to Long Island for the day to go to a doctor’s office. I guess he didn’t appreciate my staying in the right lane on the Throgs Neck Bridge and getting passed like we were standing still by commuters rushing to work.

So while I was upstairs at the doc’s, he acted. I came down and saw him in the driver’s seat, paused and then decided it seemed only natural to climb in back. When I did he turned and gave me his look, like, “Where to, Poppi?”

That’s his black watch plaid coat he’s wearing. It’s his favorite; he gets excited when I pull it out, and he sticks his head into the neck opening and waits for me to wrap the Velcro strap around his chest in anticipation of a trip or a walk.

He’s less excited about his ThunderShirt. It’s an open question as to whether it will solve his jitters with thunder, but the last time he seemed antsy, I put it on him and he went right to sleep, thud, on the hardwood floor.

But forget about driving: Styles is at his take-charge best when we go for walks, particularly when we’re at the Milford house in PA. He pins his ears back and puts those muscular pitbull shoulders into it like he’s Buck in The Call of the Wild pulling a sled across the Alaskan tundra.

And in the process he’s a babe magnet. If I were younger (lots younger), I’d be picking up twenty-something girls like magic. They flock to him. “Oh, he’s so handsome, can we pet him?”

Who could say no? Not Sty. He lets them get in a few strokes to his head, then goes for the crotch with his nose, the old doggie greeting. “Oooh,” they say and giggle.

Good boy, I’m thinking. What a guy.

That's what pitbulls do; take charge and get babes.

And Styles isn't your ordinary pitbull. He's quite a character, such that I made him a character in my thriller, Spin Move, and dedicated the book to him.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bear Claw Ate Lee Child's Lemon Pound Cake

Last weekend I had the pleasure of introducing Lee Child on stage and rubbing elbows with him (he’s a Yankees fan) as I chaperoned him for the day at our Milford Readers & Writers Festival in Milford, Pennsylvania.

Prior to the festival, when I was going over final arrangements with his associate, I noticed that Lee had requested his driver pick him up before our dinner for festival speakers and organizers, so I said I’d get him something to eat for dinner. She described Lee as the very definition of the word “chill” (he is)—content with a place to have a cigarette and a cup of black coffee—and suggested he'd be happy with a piece of lemon pound cake for the car ride home.

Manette got a chuckle out of that story and the day before the festival she saw slices of lemon pound cake as impulse purchase items on the checkout line at the grocery store. She bought one for Lee.

When I met Lee the morning of the festival at the Hotel Fauchère, we were going over the schedule for the day and I mentioned that I would arrange something for him to eat before the car picked him up. I told him the story of the lemon pound cake. He smiled and asked me to thank Manette.

After the first event I went home to walk Styles and when I looked for Lee's lemon pound cake it was gone. We call my stepson, Zac, Bear Claw, because he has a habit of wandering downstairs in the middle of the night and eating whatever is around, most times mauling it in the process and leaving a trail of crumbs and wrappers behind. In this case there was no evidence that Lee's lemon pound cake had ever existed.

I was sitting next to Lee during the next presentation at the festival and someone on stage mentioned food. I leaned over to Lee and explained to him who Bear Claw was and that he had eaten Lee’s lemon pound cake. He laughed.

I had told Manette about Bear Claw’s indiscretion before I returned to the festival, and when it came time for me to introduce Lee on stage, we were sitting in the front row, waiting to go on. Manette walked up and I introduced her. She handed Lee a paper bag and leaned over to speak to him. I heard Lee say something to her about Bear Claw and they both laughed.

After the festival, Manette told me she had given Lee a lemon meltaway cookie—the only substitute she could find at the Patisserie Fauchère. In the process she said she was a fan, too. She said Lee smiled appreciatively. Then Manette said, “Of lemon pound cake.”

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard, one of America’s recognized masters of thriller/suspense fiction, primarily in the crime genre, wrote a piece for a New York Times column, “Writers on Writing,” in July 2001.

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He since published it in book form as Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which you can get here on Amazon.

Leonard got his start by scraping out a living writing short stories and westerns (one of which, Valdez is Coming, is now considered a classic of the genre). He grew up in the Detroit area, and it’s only natural that he transitioned to writing crime fiction, where he displayed an unmatched virtuosity in capturing authentic street characters and slang in his novels.

Over 20 of his stories have been made into movies or TV shows. Westerns: Hombre and Joe Kidd, starring Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood, respectively, and more recently 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Crime: Get Shorty starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman; Out of Sight starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez; Killshot starring Mickey Rourke and Diane Lane; the FX series Justified starring Timothy Olyphant; and so on.

Leonard didn’t achieve that kind of success because he was lucky; he earned his chops the hard way, from the ground up, and as he says about his little book: “These are the rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story.”

Anyone who writes fiction, or aspires to, will benefit from the advice based on his experience.

Here it is in summary form:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I encourage you to read what he has to say about each of those rules, sparing as it is.
I keep a hardcover copy in my living room so I can read it from time to time. I find it always helps keep me on track.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Gravy Train

My novel, The Gravy Train, is the story of a novice banker who tries to help an aging chairman buy his company back before the Wall Street sharks who drove it into bankruptcy can carve it up for themselves.

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Finn Keane is a starry-eyed, freshly-minted MBA who lands a job at Abercrombie, Wirth & Co., the hottest firm on Wall Street in a red-hot market. He’s assigned to work on his first deal under the firm’s biggest producer, Jack Shane. Finn is thrilled. The deal is an ambitious acquisition by northeast regional department store chain Kristos & Co. of the high-end retailer, Milstein Brothers Stores, that will create a nationwide retail department store juggernaut. Finn immediately bonds with Nick Christanapoulas, the chairman of Kristos & Co., who has handed the day-to-day reins of the 160-store chain he built to his idiot son-in-law, Stanley, who Shane talked into the ill-conceived deal.

Shortly after the deal closes, the economy tanks and the markets crash. The merged company defaults on the junk bonds that Shane orchestrated to finance the deal even before it makes its first interest payment.

It’s at that point that Finn learns that Shane isn’t only ABC’s biggest producer; he’s also its biggest SOB.

Immediately after the company is forced to file for bankruptcy, the Wall Street sharks close in, led by Shane, and things move quickly after that. Finn gets fired by Shane and he aligns himself with Nick. Finn and Nick team up with a streetwise old bankruptcy lawyer in an effort to help Nick buy the company back out of bankruptcy.

Finn and his rag-tag group face off against Shane, the creditors and their battery of numbers crunchers, led by one of the most sophisticated and brazen bankruptcy lawyers on Wall Street, who knows all the dirty tricks of the trade and then some.

As in all minnow-versus-whale stories, you wonder how the good guys can possibly win because the odds are so stacked against them. But even if they can’t, half the fun is seeing if they can at least land a few solid punches against the bad guys before they go down swinging.

The book is based in part on the first bankruptcy deal I worked on early in my career, and it has some colorful characters based on a number of the oddballs and SOBs I encountered in the course of it.

And the title of the book is taken from real life as well: it’s the nickname of the Amtrak train from New York to Wilmington, Delaware, the site of the court where many of the main bankruptcy cases are decided. It’s on the cars of The Gravy Train on the way to court where the lawyers, bankers and creditors committees who populate the bankruptcy world huddle together. They posture, haggle and yell at each other to cut the deals they present to the judges.

I hope you’ll give The Gravy Train a try. It’s a fast-paced read that will give you some insight into how the bankruptcy game works, and hopefully entertain you.

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