by Libby Hellmann
There’s been a story in the news that reminds me why I write crime fiction. I'd like to say this story could only happen in Chicago, but of course that’s not true-- it could happen anywhere. But maybe not with the chutzpah and swagger we associate with the city of Big Shoulders.
It seems as if a few Cook County officials stole 1.6 million dollars in loans and federal money that was intended to train people to become carpenters. The thieves ran the President’s Office of Employment Training, POET, (ironic, no?) a federally funded jobs training program for the county.
Oh.. the Mayor’s office was tangentially involved, too. POET set up a dummy vendor, United Front, which was given a bunch of money from both the Mayor’s office and the Cook County Housing Authority. Unfortunately, the training sites United Front set up were “empty shells:” no equipment, no teachers, nothing. Except that United did go to the trouble of forging student signatures and falsifying paperwork to continue the stream of money.
But here’s the thing. It wasn’t as if United Front has an unblemished record. One of its officials was convicted of arson and fraud 15 years ago – Yes, that’s 15 years go -- to cover up theft. And a former POET fiscal manager was charged three years ago with embezzling nearly $200K.
All in all, over half a dozen people were charged, and while I’m shocked – shocked -- at the corruption and fraud, not to mention the turn-the-other-cheek mentality, I’m also fascinated. Who were these officials? Was simple greed what motivated them, particularly when they had to know the people at United Front weren’t (Ok, I can’t resist) “front and center?” Or was it something else? Maybe an official was in debt to the wrong people. Maybe someone’s spouse or kid had an out of control drug habit. Maybe someone needed money to pay for a medical procedure that wasn’t covered. What makes a professional commit a crime – and so brazenly?
White collar crime and the people who commit it are pretty much what I write about. Three of my novels deal with real estate fraud of one type or another, including EASY INNOCENCE (out in April… more about it later). Partly that’s because it’s familiar– my family has been in commercial real estate on the East Coast, and I've absorbed the basics over years of dinner table conversations. I understand the boom or bust cycles… the pressure… the risks… the pride.
When it’s done right, real estate development is every bit as creative as writing a novel…you’re creating something worthwhile where nothing existed before. (Sunday’s Chicago Tribune notwithstanding.) At the same time the possibilities to cut corners are legion. Maybe it’s slipping in sub-standard materials to save time and money. Maybe it’s greasing a palm for an official approval or environmental “clean bill of health.” Maybe it’s making sure the construction crews are available when you need them, or maybe it’s just out and out soaking investors without any return.
It goes without saying that my family wears a white hat when it comes to real estate. Still, I’m attracted to the dark side. What makes a person cross the line? Are unions threatening to strike? Are cost-overruns threatening to destroy the project? Or is it simply the personality of the individuals? I know these people. I grew up with them. They’re my neighbors. What happened? Did I miss something? What made them turn? Those are the things I think about when I’m writing and plotting, and – er – developing a book.
A quick search of the news reveals a rich tapestry of white collar crime. In Europe, there’s the “rogue” French trader who committed fraud to the tune of more than $7 billion…
In Los Angeles federal agents raided several Southern California museums searching for Southeast Asian antiquities that were stolen and smuggled into the U.S...
And although he’s not strictly white collar, there’s former cop Drew Peterson, who’s out-OJ’ing the Juice in outrageous behavior following the death and disappearance of two wives.
Who is this French man? He’s only 31. What went wrong? What about the art smugglers? And the collectors? Why did they risk their careers? Was it that lucrative? And what kind of creepy narcissist is Peterson? Is he going to skate?
I wonder… then I write.
What about you, Outfit readers? Is there a certain type of crime – or criminal – that calls to you?