Measure is unceasing

List of past fraudsters similar to SBF

To inform my forecasting around FTX events, I looked at the Wikipedia list of fraudsters and selected those I subjectively found similar—you can see a spreadsheet with my selection here. For each of the similar fraudsters, I present some common basic details below together with some notes.

My main takeaway is that many salient aspects of FTX have precedents: the incestuous relationship between an exchange and a trading house (Bernie Madoff, Richard Whitney), a philosophical or philanthropic component (Enric Duran, Tom Petters, etc.), embroiling friends and families in the scheme (Charles Ponzi), or multi-billion fraud not getting found out for years (Elizabeth Holmes, many others).

Fraud with a philosophical, philanthropic or religious component

Bernard Ebbers

I find the section on his faith most informative:

While CEO of WorldCom, he was a member of the Easthaven Baptist Church in Brookhaven, Mississippi. As a high-profile member of the congregation, Ebbers regularly taught Sunday school and attended the morning church service with his family. His faith was overt, and he often started corporate meetings with prayer. When the allegations of conspiracy and fraud were first brought to light in 2002, Ebbers addressed the congregation and insisted on his innocence. “I just want you to know you aren’t going to church with a crook,” he said. “No one will find me to have knowingly committed fraud.”

Also note that eventually, $8B was restored to investors.

Enric Durán

During the 2008 crisis, he robbed Spanish banks by taking out spurious loans, and donated the amounts to anticapitalist causes. He wrote a guide about how to do this, and widely distributed it: an online version in Spanish and English can be found here.

Personal takeaway: Stealing money for altruistic causes is not unprecedented. And if you are going to cross that line, it can be done with much more style. It will also be viewed much more sympathetically if you steal from organizations perceived to be corrupt.

Tom Petters

Some of his donations were later returned (bold emphasis my own):

Petters was appointed to the board of trustees for the College of St. Benedict in 2002; his mother had attended the school. In 2006 he gave $2 million for improvements to St. John’s Abbey on the campus of adjacent Saint John’s University. In light of the criminal prosecution, St. John’s Abbey arranged to return the $2 million gift to the court-appointed receiver for the Petters bankruptcy. In October 2007, Petters made a $5.3 million gift to the College of St. Benedict to create the Thomas J. Petters Center for Global Education. In 2006, he served as a co-chairman of a capital campaign at his high school, Cathedral High School, and offered to match donations up to $750,000.

Petters formed the John T. Petters Foundation to provide gifts and endowments at select universities to benefit future college students. The foundation was formed to honor his son, John Thomas Petters, who was killed on a visit in 2004 to Florence, Italy. The college student inadvertently wandered onto private property where the owner, Alfio Raugei, mistook him for an intruder and stabbed him to death.“ In response, in September 2004, Tom Petters pledged $10 million to his late son’s college, Miami University. He later promised an additional $4 million, with the total to support two professorships and the John T. Petters Center for Leadership, Ethics and Skills Development within the Farmer School of Business. Miami University has since returned Petters' donation following his conviction. Petters also donated $12 million to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he was a member of the Board of Trustees, to create two new faculty chairs in International Business.

Allen Stanford

This case is interesting because it also occurred overseas. Uninterestingly, Allen Stanford was caught in Virginia while visiting his girlfriend.

A leaked cable message from the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas reported as early as 2006 that companies under Stanford’s control were “rumoured to engage in bribery, money laundering, and political manipulation”. The U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas at the time was reported to have “managed to stay out of any one-on-one photos with Stanford” during a charity breakfast event.

A February 2009 Houston Chronicle article described Stanford as “the leading benefactor, promoter, employer and public persona” of Antigua and Barbuda. On November 1, 2006, Stanford was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Nation (KCN) of Antigua and Barbuda by the Antiguan government. Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, joined the then Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda, Sir James Carlisle, to make this announcement during the Silver Jubilee Independence Day Celebration. After being knighted, Stanford used the awarded title “Sir Allen” often; he was generally referred to as such both by Antiguans and internationally.

In October 2009, the National Honours Committee of Antigua and Barbuda voted unanimously to strip Stanford of his knighthood.

Fraud on top of a legitimate business

Marc Dreier

Dreier seems to have been a very smart guy who initially didn’t attain success. “I recall only that I was desperate for some measure of the success that I felt had eluded me. I lost my perspective and my moral grounding, and really, in a sense, I just lost my mind.”

Marc Dreier’s only television interview aired in 2009 on 60 Minutes titled, “The Swindler,” which was hosted by Steve Kroft. Dreier notes that he thought he would be featured on 60 minutes for something good that he had done, not for something bad. Kroft asks Dreier a question that was asked of Bernie Madoff, who many people find similarities with, about how someone could have kept up a scam for so long. Dreier noted that he had multiple stressors simultaneously that kept up his focus: the scam, a legitimate law business (funded by the scam), and his work as a practicing attorney.

Richard Whitney)

This case is remarkable because he previously was the director of the New York Exchange, borrowed from his brother, and ultimately went bankrupt:

Richard Whitney (August 1, 1888 – December 5, 1974) was an American financier, president of the New York Stock Exchange from 1930 to 1935. He was later convicted of embezzlement and imprisoned.

At the same time that Richard Whitney was achieving great success, his brother George had also prospered at Morgan bank and by 1930 had been anointed as the likely successor to bank president, Thomas W. Lamont. While Richard Whitney was assumed to be a brilliant financier, he in fact had personally been involved with speculative investments in a variety of businesses and had sustained considerable losses. To stay afloat, he began borrowing heavily from his brother George as well as other wealthy friends, and after obtaining loans from as many people as he could, turned to embezzlement to cover his mounting business losses and maintain his extravagant lifestyle. He stole funds from the New York Stock Exchange Gratuity Fund, the New York Yacht Club (where he served as the Treasurer), and $800,000 worth of bonds from his father-in-law’s estate.

Barry Minkow

“ While most Ponzi schemes are based on non-existent businesses, ZZZZ Best’s carpet-cleaning division was very real and won high marks for its quality”

The Wikipedia page just keeps on going:

“ … the Los Angeles Police Department raided ZZZZ Best’s headquarters and Minkow’s home, and found evidence that the company was being used to launder drug profits for organized crime”

After being released from jail, Minkow became a pastor and fraud investigator in San Diego, and spoke at churches and schools about ethics. This came to an end in 2011, when he admitted to helping deliberately drive down the stock price of homebuilder Lennar and was ordered back to prison for five years. Three years later, Minkow admitted to defrauding his own church and was sentenced to an additional five years in prison. He is subject to restitution requirements totaling $612 million.

Bernie Madoff

There was a similar structure of having a trading house and a hedge fund. However, industry insiders suspected it. Most of the money was eventually returned.

Lou Pearlman

Pearlman used income from the Backstreet Boys and other bands which he either created or managed, to prop up an almost nonexistent aviation company.

Crazy Eddie

Shares a similar pattern of having fraud on top of a legitimate business.

Samuel D. Waksal

The Wikipedia page is unclear on whether the medicaments he pioneered were fraudulent, or whether the fraud was adjacent but unrelated.

Other somehow subjectively similar cases

Charles Ponzi

Ponzi’s investors even included those closest to him, like his chauffeur John Collins and his own brother-in-law. Ponzi was indiscriminate about whom he allowed to invest, from young newspaper boys investing a few dollars to high-net-worth individuals, like a banker from Lawrence, Kansas, who invested $10,000

Tino De Angelis

Also borrowed based on faulty collateral. After his prison term, he went on to scam further.

Alves dos Reis

Complicated plot to forge Portuguese banknotes in Angola, which was brought down when rivals accused it of being a front for the Germans, stopping a plan to become legitimate by acquiring the Bank of Portugal and hush away the fraudulent origins of the con.

Jordan Belfort

Fictionalized in the Wolf of Wall Street film. Belfort ended up paying 50% of his future income towards restitution, and giving somewhat scammy motivational and training seminars.

EDIT h/t Greg Colbourn: The above is incorrect. Belfort was initially supposed to pay 50% of his salary, but sneaked out of it. See here for more details.

Elizabeth Holmes

Homes seems to have been a similarly charismatic funder. Though in this case, it seems like the enterprise was a fraud from the beginning.

A takeaway for me: Fraud is surprisingly common, and investors probably price it in. 

Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (Enron scandal)

James Paul Lewis Jr.

Around half of his fortune was mandated to be returned, but only $11M was ultimately returned.

Harshad Mehta

Also financed market speculation with worthless securities which he himself created.

John Rigas

The executives were accused of looting the corporation by concealing $2.3 billion in liabilities from corporate investors and of using corporation funds as their personal funds

Ferdinand Ward

Ward ran the company as a Ponzi scheme, claiming that he had inside access to government contracts, a claim which gained further credence when the president later joined the firm as a full partner.

Whitaker Wright

At this point Wright made his criminal error. To maintain an image of solvency and success, Wright kept pushing thousands of pounds from one of his companies to another in a series of “loans”. This led to some misrepresentations on balance sheets. But when he announced that, despite the apparent prosperity of his group, there would be no dividends, people became suspicious. In December 1900, the companies collapsed. Wright fled, but was brought back to stand trial. The shock waves led to a panic in London’s exchange. There were other losses. The humiliated Marquess of Dufferin and Ava died in 1902 in the midst of the investigation.