Sunday, September 28, 2003

When it comes to crime, white-collar is way to go

Laura Pulfer

Something stinks, I said with customary inelegance.

The FBI agent on the other end of the phone a year ago was too polite to respond in kind. He said only that he could not comment on an "ongoing investigation."

But why, I wondered, has this investigation taken so long? Richard Zenni filed for bankruptcy in 2000, listing his former clients as creditors with the notation next to each name: "Money wrongfully taken." Although one has to admire the delicacy of the language, it seems clear that the stockbroker was a thief.

A year before that - 1999 if you're counting - his New York brokerage firm issued a statement, "Mr. Zenni has been terminated by Paine Webber in connection with his inappropriate handling of an account."

The money inappropriately handled and wrongfully taken was $2,865,000. It was nine accounts belonging mostly to elderly investors, mostly from around here. Phillip and Nazi Ritter, whom Zenni listed as "wrongfully" losing $500,000 had no children of their own. The Cincinnati broker showed them photos of his children.

"He seemed very nice," Mrs. Ritter said.

FBI agent Walter Wright began making the case against the stockbroker in October of 1999. Four years later, U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith sentenced Richard Zenni to 37 months in a federal prison. In addition, he has been ordered to pay restitution to Kidder Peabody and Paine Webber, the firms which had employed Zenni and who reimbursed the clients who had been fleeced over a 10-year period.

So, what about the 37 months? Which is about a year less than Walter Wright spent on the case.

"It's not enough," the agent says shortly.

Judges are bound by federal sentencing guidelines. For instance, a first-time offender convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine faces more than twice as much time in prison as a first-time embezzler. The United States Sentencing Guidelines Commission permits 37 to 46 months for Zenni's particular set of circumstances.

FBI agent Wrightsaid Zenni had "an excellent attorney."

In a completely unrelated matter, except that his collar, too, is white and he also specialized in elderly clientele and gobbled up years of time, George Fiorini is scheduled to appear in court Monday. The feds have been chasing Fiorini for eight years, claiming that the insurance salesman bilked investors out of millions of dollars through the sale of unsecured promissory notes. Fiorini pleaded not guilty at a May 15 arraignment and is expected to have arranged a plea bargain.

Meanwhile, Jason Patchell, 24, is one year into his 15-year sentence. Known as the Green Township burglar, he walked into at least 13 unlocked homes early in 2002. One of his victims, Joe Zeinner, told reporters, "He didn't hurt anybody. He stole things. He ruined our lives a little. But 15 years is a long time."

Investors who entrusted their money to Richard Zenni were not high rollers. Their lives were ruined a little and a lot. Jeff Ward said his parents lost their house "just so they can have money for food and medicine."

And a couple more completely unrelated cases - Kenneth Lay of Enron and Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom. - still await justice.

Something stinks.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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