News from an “Unlikely Community”

Thanks to LA Biz Observed’s Mark Lacter for calling attention to this piece from the American Enterprise Institute’s “business magazine for people who think,” The American. 

It’s about prison, specifically the prison experience of white-collar felons, so of course I read every word twice.  The story analyzes recent trends in sentencing for white collar executives and business people convicted by the federal government of a wide assortment of crimes in which either a postage stamp (“mail fraud”) or an interstate communications line (“wire fraud”) was used.  Lacter linked to the story to make this point:

The days when white-collar prison sentences were a walk in the park – sometimes literally – are long gone….  These days, the minimum security facilities are becoming tougher, even more dangerous.

So, mind your p’s and q’s, Lacter wishes to warn would-be corporate criminals.  The days of golfing felons eating gourmet fare from Chasens are over.

Certainly, that’s one theme of Luke Mullins’ piece, entitled “Enter a ‘Hellish Place.'”  But there is much more to this expertly written, gripping narrative. First of all, it’s a story about two people, Alfred A. Porro, Jr. and his wife, Joan, both of them attorneys in New Jersey.  Porro rode a wave of success, working his way into a business partnership with NFL great Lawrence Taylor, but also someone criminal justice investigators had been investigating for years for things like conflict of interest and obstruction of justice.  But the case that ended up in his conviction and incarceration was nothing like that.

The thrust of the government’s case was that Joan Porro, then the executor of a trust that a former cli­ent had set up for his two children, had invested some funds from the trust in one of Al’s business ventures with Lawrence Taylor. Since documents regarding the investment were distributed by the U.S. Postal Service and did not disclose Al Porro’s stake, the Porros had committed mail fraud, the government contended.

At the meeting that morning, Carbone presented what Porro later called a tempting deal. The feds offered to reduce his potential punishment drasti­cally and to allow his wife to avoid prison altogether. But in return, the government wanted Al Porro’s tes­timony. He was to choose one person from a list of his former associates and provide testimony to sup­port the government’s case. (Through a spokesman at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Perry Carbone refused to comment on any of his dealings with Porro.)

Porro insists that the statements he was asked to make as a witness for the government were false. Still, the idea of keeping his wife out of jail was appealing. But it was Joan who convinced him to reject Carbone’s offer and fight the charges, Porro said.

Two years would pass before the case went to trial. “After more than a decade of fire-walking through state and federal investigations, Porro goes on trial today in federal court in Camden on wide-ranging fraud charges,” the Newark Star-Ledger said on January 12, 1999. The Porros represented them­selves in the nine-week trial and argued that the investment in the Porro/Taylor venture was in the best interest of the beneficiaries of the trust, who received a 10 percent return on their investment. Meanwhile, prosecutors inundated the jury with 2,000 pieces of evidence and 41 witnesses, includ­ing Lawrence Taylor himself.

On certain mornings, Porro was found kneel­ing in silent prayer before the judge’s bench in the empty courtroom. And just before the verdicts were returned, Porro’s family linked hands and sang “Amazing Grace” in the courthouse rotunda. But after three days of deliberation, the jury found both Al and Joan guilty on all 19 counts. Seven months later, a federal judge sentenced Al to nearly six years in prison, and Joan to nearly five. Calling the couple a flight risk, the judge had them taken into custody immediately.

This is the signal irony and characteristic of white-collar crime investigations.  The people who are really doing something wrong, and know they’re doing something wrong, are difficult to catch.  They cover their tracks from the first day of their scheme, knowing what a stray e-mail or document might mean to them.  White collar investigators don’t like cases like that.  Too hard, percentages not in their favor.  They hate to lose, and they know the public is watching. 

On the other hand, there are lots of people like Porro and his wife who, perhaps in good faith, make mistakes, or do things that, carefully sliced-and-diced away from all context, can be made to look like crimes to a jury already impressed by the government’s majesty.  People like that leave evidence all over the place, because they don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong, thus have nothing to hide.  To prosecutors who need to boost their batting average, cases like the Porros’ are a hanging curveball. 

Note also the escape hatch the Porros were allegedly offered: Help us convict someone else by saying what we want you to say about another investigatory target (statements Porro claimed would have been lies).  Implicitly, this is because the prosecutors didn’t have the goods against that target.   Why didn’t they have the goods?  Either the targets were too good at covering their tracks, or prosecutors knew no jury would find them guilty based on an honest presentation of evidence. So they had to cheat.

This was also interesting:

To Porro, the biggest initial surprise about life at Allenwood was the diversity of his fellow inmates. Most of the camp prisoners were not the rich white guys he had expected to see but poor African Americans and Hispanics—most of whom, Porro would soon learn, were drug offenders. “I was of the impression that the camps were primarily for white-collar criminals,” Porro said. “That’s just not the case.”

Despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, minimum-security prison camps are not reserved for former congressmen and CEOs. “People assume that you go to a prison surrounded by lawyers, doctors, and politicians,” said David Novak, a for­mer inmate who is now president of a consulting firm that prepares con­victs for prison life. “In fact, when you go to a camp, a full 70 percent of the other inmates are there as a direct result of the war on drugs.” In 1970, according to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, drug offenders made up just 16 percent of all federal prisoners, but by January 2007, the proportion had risen to 54 percent.

In part because of the increasing number of drug convictions, the federal prison system has expanded on a massive scale—from just 21,000 inmates in 1970 to 193,000 in 2007. As the system strug­gled to accommodate the ballooning population, many nonviolent drug offenders were sent to the camps. As a result, when new inmates like Porro arrive, they enter an unlikely community where the nation’s elite—professionals, politicians, corporate executives—live alongside the indigent foot soldiers of the drug trade.

“When you first get there, you’re a little apprehen­sive about mixing with the drug dealers, but then you learn that the drug dealers are a little appre­hensive about mixing with you,” said Fred Shapiro, a former attorney and accountant who defrauded a slew of Philadelphia-area financial institutions out of more than $8.5 million.

I’ll know in a week or two if I’m about to join an “unlikely community” up in Taft, CA.  Stay tuned. 

Stories like this are critical for anyone who works for a living to know, but they only tell half the story.  It’s easy to say “corporate criminals beware,” but not everyone serving time for white collar crime was aware they were doing something that anyone would call a crime.  How to avoid falling into that trap — how to be sure you won’t, even under the most politically charged circumstances — is a little too complicated for a slogan.  More on that sooner — or later.

4 thoughts on “News from an “Unlikely Community”

  1. Scully!

    Great to hear from you!

    In addition to being a great guy, you were a blogger before the word “blog” had been invented.

    I’m looking forward to reading your site. Feel free also to write me off-line (see “Contact”) to catch me up.

  2. Pingback: Two updates, or Why Bloggers are Better than Hack Journalists « From the Desert to the Sea…

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