Financial villains

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Financial skulduggery is always unearthed in a downturn. Yet, for all of the superlatives attached to today’s crisis, the quality of its villains has been decidedly subpar. Sure, Bernard Madoff is accused of running the largest-ever Ponzi scheme, but what sort of character would he make in a John Grisham novel? Unless his alleged ties to Russian and Colombian mobsters yield some excitement, perhaps a contract killing, a pretty poor one.

Some fugitives started off promisingly but were so inept that their exploits are more comedy than thriller. Take Marcus Schrenker, the disgraced financial advisor, who faked his own death this week by parachuting out of his private plane before it crashed. Confronted by a policeman, he presented his real identification and was arrested soon after fleeing on a motorcycle. Bayou hedge fund fraudster Sammy Israel at least lasted a few weeks after faking his suicide. But no potboiler anti-hero worth his salt would have escaped in a hulking motorhome and then meekly turned himself into the authorities. At least, Kobi Alexander, indicted former head of Comverse, has been clever enough to avoid extradition for now in Namibia, armed with a small fortune. But where is the sport in such legal manoeuvres?

Today’s villains cannot hold a candle to Robert Vesco, financial fugitive par excellence. The fund manager and embezzler was on the lam for 35 years during which he hopped between Caribbean nations in a Boeing 707 and a floating love palace worthy of a Bond villain. He had the audacity to deliver a briefcase filled with $200,000 to Richard Nixon in hope of clemency and tried to buy part of an island so he could make it a sovereign nation and avoid extradition. Vesco (allegedly) died of natural causes in 2007. Unlike in Hollywood movies, however, the most successful villains are those we never hear about: the ones that are never caught.

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