The Mitchell Report
Strange Occurrences, and a Story about Naked Short Selling
January 27th, 2009 by Mark Mitchell
Evidence suggests that Bernard Madoff, the “prominent” Wall Street operator and former chairman of the NASDAQ stock market, had ties to the Russian Mafia, Moscow-based oligarchs, and the Genovese organized crime family.
And, as reported by Deep Capture and Reuters, Madoff did not just orchestrate a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. He was also the principal architect of SEC rules that made it easier for “naked” short sellers to manufacture phantom stock and destroy public companies – a factor in the near total collapse of the American financial system.
* * * * * * * *
I don’t know why, but this seems like a good time to tell you a little about my personal history. Along the way, I’ll mention a murder, two suicides (or “suicides”), a punch in the face, a generous bribe, three Armani suits in bar, and a “prominent” billionaire who might know something about a death threat and a Russian matryoshka doll.
But actually, this story isn’t about me. It’s about Patrick Byrne, the fellow who got me into this mess.
* * * * * * * *
The story, like so many others, begins on August 12, 2005 – the day that Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com and future reporter for Deep Capture (a leading investigative news outfit), delivered a famous conference call presentation entitled, “The Miscreants Ball.”
To the 500 Wall Street honchos who listened in to this conference call, Patrick said that a network of miscreants was using a variety of tactics – including naked short selling (phantom stock) – to destroy public companies for profit. He said this scheme had the potential to crash the financial markets, but that the SEC did nothing because the SEC had been compromised – or “captured” – by unsavory operators on Wall Street.
Patrick added that he believed the scheme’s mastermind — “just call him the Sith Lord” — was a “famous criminal from the 1980s.”
In January 2006, I was working as an editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, a well-respected ( if somewhat dowdy) magazine devoted to media criticism. Patrick had claimed that some prominent journalists were “corrupt” and were working with prominent hedge funds to cover up the naked short selling scandal, so I called to discuss.
Patrick picked up the phone and said: “Chasing this story will take you down a rabbit hole with no end.” He said that the story had it all – diabolical billionaires, phantom stock, dishonest journalists, crooked lawyers, black box organizations on Wall Street – and not only that, but “the Mafia is involved, too.”
Well, Patrick seemed basically sane. I decided to write a story about the basically sane CEO who was fighting the media on an important financial issue while harboring some eccentric notions about the Mafia.
I figured it would take a week.
* * * * * * * *
Months later, my desk was buried under evidence of short seller miscreancy, I had done nothing but investigate this story since the day I first called Patrick, and I had just gone to a topless club to meet a self-professed mobster who told me all about a stockbroker who had peddled phantom shares for the Russian Mafia and the Genovese organized crime family.
The stockbroker had taken a bullet to the head – execution-style. And the mobster said he knew who did it.
* * * * * * * *
By this time, Patrick had long-since amended his “Sith Lord” analogy to say that the short selling schemes probably had multiple masterminds with a shared ideology – “like Al Queda.”
Be that as it may, my investigation now had two areas of focus. The first was the Mafia. The second was a network of crooked journalists, investors, short sellers, and scoundrels – a great many of whom were connected in important ways to two famous criminals or their associates.
The famous criminals were Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.
In the 1980s, Milken and Boesky were among the most “prominent” investors in America. They were also the main protagonists in what James B. Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal, later called “the greatest criminal conspiracy the financial world has ever known.”
In 1989, Milken was indicted on 98 counts of securities fraud and racketeering. He did some time in prison. Upon his release, he revved up a public relations machine that was as effective as it was ruthless (Milken’s detractors had their reputations torn to shreds).
Nowadays, the press generally refers to Milken as a “prominent philanthropist.” Often, he is hailed as the “junk bond king” – a financial “genius” who “fueled economic growth” and “built great companies” by “revolutionizing” the market for high-yield debt (junk bonds).
Boesky, who helped Milken destroy great companies, was indicted on several counts of securities fraud and stock manipulation. After his release from prison, in the early 1990s, he reportedly went to Moscow to build relationships with the Russian oligarchs who were then looting the former Soviet Union.
After that, nobody heard much from Boesky.
* * * * * * * *
In the spring of 2006, I doubted that Milken or Boesky had committed any wrong-doing since the 1980s. But it was clear that many of the people in their network were up to their same old tricks – destroying public companies for profit.
I did not think that Milken or Boesky worked for the Mafia – that would be crazy. But it was clear that the Mafia was destroying public companies for profit. And it was clear that a surprising number of people in the Milken-Boesky network did have ties to the Mafia.
At any rate, the “prominent investors” in this network seemed to have many schemes.
Sometimes they seized a public company, fattened it with debt, stripped out its assets, pocketed its cash, and then killed the company off. This is what mobsters used to call a “bust-out.” In the old days, it was neighborhood wiseguys taking over local restaurants. In the 1980s, Milken and his crowd introduced the technique to the world of high-finance.
Other times, the “prominent investor” thugs acquired large stakes in a company. Then the thugs suggested to the company that they would go away only if the company were to buy back its shares at a hefty premium. In the 1980s, the Milken crowd referred to this as “greenmail.” Mobsters called it “blackmail” or “protection money.”
In still other cases, the “prominent investors” attacked the companies from the outside, employing tactics – threats, harassment, extortion – that seem straight from the Mafia playbook.
Whatever the specifics of the scheme, it was often the case that “prominent” short sellers who were tied to the “prominent investors” would eventually converged on the target companies and use a variety of equally abusive tactics either to destroy the companies or put them on the defensive.
While I do not have SEC data going back to the 1980s, the data for more recent years shows that most of the companies attacked by this network were also victimized by abusive naked short selling.
That is, somebody sold massive amounts of the companies’ stock and “failed to deliver” it for days, weeks, months – or even years – at a time.
* * * * * * * *
So back in 2006, I had begun to ask a lot of questions.
That’s when I had a strange encounter with three dudes in Armani suits.
The encounter occurred on a Thursday evening in a quiet, neighborhood dive bar, around the corner from my apartment, near Columbia University in New York – a neighborhood that does not often attract men in Armani suits. I was alone, having a beer and reading a book about Wall Street.
The Armani suits entered the bar and sat down next to me.
“Whatcha reading?” one said.
When I told him, he asked: “Anything in there about Ivan Boesky?”
“Yes,” I said, “he’s mentioned”
“Haven’t read it,” the man said.
He was silent for a few minutes. Then he laughed and announced that, by the way, he used to work for Ivan Boesky’s family. He said Boesky “is a real asshole – thinks he has so much money he can do what he wants. Hell, he might have killed people, for all I know…Heh.”
Armani shook his head. Then he said, “Hey, I got to tell you a funny story.”
This turned out to be a long and convoluted tale, the gist being that a fellow had wandered into the ladies underwear department at Saks Fifth Avenue. Apparently, this fellow thought it would be a good idea to peek into a dressing room where a lady was trying on a new pair of panties. But the lady’s husband caught the fellow and the husband happened to be packing some high-caliber weaponry, so he blew the fellow’s brains out, and now there was a big mess in the ladies underwear department.
“The guy was a pervert,” said Armani. “You know what I mean? There are some things you keep your nose out of. I would have killed the guy, too.”
With that, Armani stood up and said he was pleased to have met me.
I asked for his name. He said, “It’s John — John from Saks Fifth Avenue.”
And then he and his friends were out the door. The other two guys hadn’t said a word. None of them had bought drinks or shown any other reason for having entered the bar.
This occurred shortly after I began asking my first serious questions about Boesky. I had just met with a CNBC public relations man and I had told him that I was conducting a full-scale investigation of Boesky, and was interested in knowing more about Boesky’s ties to CNBC reporter Jim Cramer. I had determined that most of the journalists who were deliberately blowing smoke over the naked short selling issue were connected to Cramer. These included four of the five founding editors of TheStreet.com, Cramer’s online financial news publication.
Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, had planned to work out of Boesky’s offices in the 1980s. When Boesky was indicted, Cramer worked instead with Michael Steinhardt, whose biggest initial investors were Boesky, Marc Rich (later convicted for tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran), Marty Peretz (co-founder, with Cramer, of TheStreet.com) and the Genovese organized crime family.
Steinhardt’s father, Sol “Red” Steinhardt, spent several years in Sing-Sing prison after he was a convicted by a New York prosecutor who described him as “the biggest Mafia fence in America.”
Also at this time, a central target of my investigation was a hedge fund called SAC Capital, colloquially known as “Sak.” That, of course, is somewhat different from “Saks Fifth Avenue.” It seemed doubtful to me that either Boesky or SAC Capital had sent the Armani-suits to threaten me.
Possibly, I thought, Armani had misrepresented his relationship with Boesky and Saks Fifth Avenue. Perhaps Armani worked for people who were concerned that I had begun investigating that execution-style murder.
Either that, or this was just one of those weird coincidences and there really was a former Boesky employee who’d found work in the brain-splattered ladies underwear department at Saks Fifth Avenue.
* * * * * * * *
My investigation continued and sometime later – on Halloween, 2006 – a guy sat down next to me at a book store. He said he’d seen me with one of my closest relatives (he was specific, but I’d rather not name the relative) and he thought I needed to be more concerned about the safety of this relative.
He said he didn’t mean to be intrusive, but he knew how hard it was to take care of relatives and he just wanted everyone to be safe.
Then another guy sat down at a nearby table, and slammed down a book. On the front cover of this book, in big bold letters, it said: “MAFIA.”
I became paranoid enough to retreat to the back of the book store. I told one of the clerks about the two guys, and I called some colleagues, who offered to send the police.
As soon as I hung up, one of the guys came up to me, smiled, and said he hoped that he hadn’t upset me. Then he left.
I told my friends not to call the police. It was probably just a strange coincidence.
Two years later, as my investigation deepened, I began receiving Internet messages from Sam Antar, a convicted felon who orchestrated the famous fraud at Crazy Eddie, the electronics retailer. In an upcoming story, I will describe Antar’s relationship with Michael Milken. I will also tell you more about the $200,000 in cash that Antar delivered to a Milken-funded entrepreneur who orchestrated a massive fraud with the Genovese organized crime family.
For now, though, I’ll just say that Antar’s messages to me have not been friendly.
In one, he wrote, “Mitchell: Do you remember what happened last Halloween?”
I had spent the previous Halloween interviewing Rotarians in Oklahoma about their Halloween canned food drive. The Halloween before that, I was in a book store where there was either a strange coincidence or a veiled death threat.
I sent Antar an email, asking what he meant. He did not reply.
* * * * * * * *
In November 2006, one of the hedge fund managers I was investigating appeared in my office and announced that he had become the primary financial backer of my department at the Columbia Journalism Review. Traditionally, the Columbia Journalism Review (a not-for-profit magazine) had been funded by large philanthropic foundations – not by hedge fund managers who were under investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review.
But now my salary would depend entirely on the beneficence of this hedge fund.
The hedge fund was called Kingsford Capital, and in upcoming stories, I will tell you more about this hedge fund.
I’ll tell you about Kingsford’s ties to naked short sellers.
I will tell you about the large sums of money that were offered to other journalists who had been working the naked short selling story.
I will tell you why it is significant that one of Kingsford Capital’s managers was Cory Johnson – a founding editor, along with Jim Cramer and the other dishonest journalists I was investigating, of TheStreet.com.
I will publish emails that shed light on Kingsford’s relationship with hedge funds that are tied to both SAC Capital and Michael Steinhardt, Cramer’s former office-mate.
In still other stories, I’ll tell you more about Steinhardt and his partners’ ties to the Genovese Mafia, Ivan Boesky, an angry Russian hooker, and a man who wanted the world to believe that he was dead.
I will also tell you about the former Genovese Mafia soldier who told a former manager of SAC Capital that he could make one of the manager’s business associates disappear in the Nevada desert. And I’ll tell you that the man who volunteered to commit this murder had once been hired to put a dead fish and a bullet hole in the car of a journalist who was investigating one of Michael Milken’s closest friends.
I’ll tell you all about it in upcoming stories.
But let me stress that I have no idea who was responsible for the strange things that occurred in 2006. That is to say, I know that Kingsford bribed the Columbia Journalism Review.
But as for the other strange occurrences – all I can say is that they were strange.
* * * * * * * *
Two days after I learned that Kingsford Capital and its cronies would be paying my salary while I finished my exposé on Kingsford Capital and its cronies, I had dinner with an economist who was exploring the naked short selling problem.
On my way home, I stopped in a café around the corner from my apartment. As I was putting on my coat to leave the cafe, a man grabbed me from behind and forcefully escorted me to the sidewalk. Outside, there were two more guys – not big guys, just regular looking fellows. They grabbed me, and the first guy delivered a single powerful punch to my eye.
I was stunned. When I finally held up my fists, the three men laughed and embraced me in a bear hug. Then they virtually carried me to the front stoop of my apartment, which was a block away. It seemed as if they knew that I lived there.
After brushing off my lapel, they said they were very sorry. They said they hoped I wasn’t offended, it wouldn’t happen again, but they were there for my own good – and, please, just “stay away from your Irish Mafia friend.”
Then they were gone. It all happened in about three minutes.
It occurred to me that this might have been just a random act of violence. It also occurred to me that the thugs might have bungled the message – that they had meant to say, “Just stay away from the Mafia and your Irish friend.”
Patrick Byrne (full name: Patrick Michael Xavier Byrne), with whom I was working extensively on the naked short selling story, is Irish. In interviews I had conducted for the story, many people had commented on Patrick’s Irishness. (In some Wall Street circles, it seems to be common for people to refer to others’ ethnicity – “Byrne, he’s an Irish guy, right?” or “The stock loan business, that’s the Italians.”)
In any case, I went to work the next day with a black eye. I said it was “just a bar fight.”
A woman in my office told me she thought it was “really cool” that I had been in a bar fight.
Later, Sam Antar, the convicted felon, posted an Internet message asking whether I “had ever been forcefully escorted out of a public building.”
As this had happened only once, I sent Antar an email asking if he was referring to the thugs who’d ambushed me in a café.
Antar did not answer my question. Instead, he quickly proceeded to write a blog saying that he had just received information that I had been “forcefully escorted out of the Columbia Journalism Review.”
* * * * * * * *
During the fall of 2006, Patrick Byrne had some strange experiences as well.
Somebody broke into Patrick’s home, and soon after, somebody broke into the home of a woman who was Patrick’s girlfriend at the time. Then somebody threw a pair of metal gardening shears through the window of the girlfriend’s restaurant.
Around the same time, Patrick’s then-girlfriend discovered that for some mysterious reason, her phone records were being sent to the home of a Russian man working for Goldman Sachs Execution and Clearing (formerly Spear, Leeds, and Kellogg – in its day, one of the most egregious naked short selling outfits on the Street).
I asked Goldman Sachs about this. I was told that the bank had investigated thoroughly and found no reason to believe that the Russian man, Elliot Faivinov, had obtained the phone records. (For anyone interested, the phone company can confirm that he did receive the phone records.)
At any rate, I have since learned that Goldman Sachs became a large donor to the Columbia Journalism Review sometime not long after Kingsford Capital announced that it would be paying my salary. Wall Street has never been so devoted to the dowdy world of media criticism.
As if all of this were not enough, one day in the fall of 2006, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch invited Patrick to his home. As soon as Patrick entered the lobby of the apartment building, the Senator pulled him aside and said that he had credible information that Patrick’s life was in danger.
“You are up against some really nasty, vicious people,” the Senator said, “They will not hesitate to kill you.”
* * * * * * * *
Patrick kept on fighting.
As for me, I’d been investigating the Mafia, there’d been an execution-style murder, now there were these strange incidents, which might have been nothing, but getting beat up kind of freaked me out, and now I was staying up all night, squinting at my computer through my punched-in eye (which was black and blue, full of puss and swollen shut), trying to finish a story about a scandal involving the people who would now be directly paying my salary.
And so, maybe it isn’t all that surprising what happened next, which is that I snapped.
I couldn’t work anymore. I checked-out.
In the middle of November, a week or so after getting the Kingsford news, but still on perfectly good terms with my editors, I quit my job, and walked out the door.
Within a few days, I had shut down my New York apartment, and was on a plane to Chicago, where I planned to take some time off.
I had told my editor that I thought I might be killed. But I never specified, and I didn’t make an issue of the Kingsford Capital bribe until later. So I am hopeful that the good people at the Columbia Journalism Review never really knew that they were taking tainted money.
That said, my questions about this have gone unanswered.
* * * * * * * *
A few weeks later, Patrick accepted an invitation to meet an offshore investor in a greasy spoon diner in Long Island. They had never met, but over the previous year the man had fed Patrick bits and pieces of information about the workings of the phantom stock scam. The hope was that the man might have something more to say in person.
But that day at the diner, all he had was a message.
“I’ll make this quick,” the businessman said, with two other witnesses present. “I have a message for you from Russia. The message is, ‘We are about to kill you. We are about to kill you.’ Patrick, they are going to kill you. If you do not stop this crusade, they will kill you. Normally they’d have already hurt someone close to you as a warning, but you’re so weird, they don’t know how you’d react.”
In a later phone conversation with an associate of Patrick’s the man described how he received this message. He said he returned home one night and his wife told him there was a package on his desk. “And there was a beautiful little box, and inside was a matryoshka.”
Matryoshkas are those lacquered Russian dolls - the kind with multiple dolls of decreasing size inside of them.
“And I opened up the last matryoshka,” said the man, “and inside is an `F’ with a cross on it — which is from Felix…”
* * * * * * * *
A year later, I was working for a charitable service organization. Patrick called me to catch up. Pretty quickly, he was suggesting to me that I quit my job and return to the naked short selling story.
I thought about shopping the story around to magazines, but I never did. There was no way that the story could be told in a few magazine pages.
Moreover, the story represented the joint efforts of myself, Patrick, reporter Judd Bagley and many independent, volunteer researchers. This was an unprecedented collaboration, and it occurred to me that if this collaboration were to continue — as Deep Capture, the website — it could put the major news organizations to shame.
So I wrote the story – our story, filled with hard facts about a scandal.
The story that I wrote was not a magazine story. It was not a news story. It was 69 pages long, and it was “The Story of Deep Capture.”
But that was only half the story. There is much more.
For example, you do not yet know the name of the famous billionaire who might be able to tell us more about Felix, his matryoshka doll, the Russian Mafia, and the Genovese organized crime family.
* * * * * * * *
To be continued….
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Mark Mitchell is a reporter for DeepCapture.com. He has previously held writing and editing positions with the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Time Magazine in Asia, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Columbia Journalism Review. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org