Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Fiction for class (Spokane's fraudulent co. was Metropolitan Mortgage)
Fiction by Steve Johnston and read May 26, 2004
“It would be much too risky to talk about over the phone,” Tom Rollins said, in confidential tones. “My boss might decide to listen in. Let’s meet at 4 at the west entrance to Lincoln Park. Bring some good walking shoes.” He gave me directions and we hung up. I asked at my downtown hotel if the park was on a bus route and received a positive reply. I feel that local buses provide a closer look at people than renting a car. It surprises some people when I mention I don’t even own a car.
I loaded fresh batteries in my pocket recorder.
In my job with “60 Minutes”, I’m sent out to vet the occasional whistleblower. Then I turn it over to one of the personalities on the show -- Leslie Stahl being my favorite -- to fully develop it. I had a layover in Spokane when I got this assignment. So, from the Portland airport I had called the guy who, indeed, had a story to tell.
When we met, I sized Rollins up as a fit thirty-something; overall, ordinary looking. That’s just to say he wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd. He projected caution -- wanted to see my journalist credentials. But then he was satisfied. I can only guess what he had to say had been bottled up inside him, because he was aching to tell someone. He was adamant that only the “right contact” would get out the story in a way to protect the public while making the bad guys squirm.
As we make the cement circuit around the pond there, passing volcanic outcroppings, he gathered up his courage and started his tale.
His title at Millennium Mortgage was assistant finance director, a couple of layers down from the CFO. There had been some bad bets placed in the equity markets, and they had resulted in sizable losses about a month earlier. The CFO had been given authority to buy options that would hedge the corporation’s risks in the market. But he had funneled the money off into a secret account, figuring the stocks wouldn’t go south on him -- he had some insider information from his half-sister whom he trusted implicitly.
We were on the second circuit, and I was getting a welcome workout. Rollins’ story was holding my attention. One would anticipate that the tale would now take the predictable course of the CFO being exposed, being publicly fired, and indicted on fraud charges when it was plainly shown he couldn’t make restitution. Only there were one or two more complications that had yet to come to light. The founder’s son, a vice-president and next in line to take over the reins, was embezzling funds and was clever enough to put the money back before an annual audit came up. Apparently, this was more like practice for him, for he had yet larger plans when his father retired. (His father was in failing health and was ceding authority to the son, something which was hidden from the investing public.)
It was about at this point that I heard Rollins mention blackmail. But as I digested this twist to the story, I noticed the sun’s reflection off a lens pointed in our direction. Amidst the cattails, someone was snapping pictures. When the man realized he had been spotted and started to light out, I saw he was carrying a telephoto lens. It seemed rather farfetched that someone had followed Rollins and caught the two of us together. I had sensed Rollins was skittish, but I wasn’t prepared for his quick “Bye, I’ll call you,” as he sprinted after the photographer.
I had a quiet and solitary dinner at the Davenport that night. Rollins didn’t call me then or when I was back at my New York office. Well, that wasn’t the first time a good story got away from me. I had plenty of legwork yet to do on the gay marriage controversy that was unfolding in Portland, the one I was already working on when I chanced into Spokane that first and only time.