Trial runs for Wall Street’s finest


It’s muggy here – a point emphasised by the increasing number of sweating brows I’ve watched on TV the past week. These brows mainly belong to men in suits who are on their way in and out of courthouses on charges of white-collar crime.

One theory, according to prosecutors and TV pundits, is that desperate economic times encourage desperate measures. Statistics from the FBI show the number of investigations is rising.

So in one week we’ve watched Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi, managers from Bear Stearns, charged with securities and wire fraud, walk uncomfortably in handcuffs. There have been pictures of Sam Israel, the hedge-fund trader, convicted for fraud, now allegedly on the run having faked his own suicide.

Then, most sensationally, there’s the good-looking, dark-haired Italian Raffaelo Follieri, the former boyfriend of actress of Anne Hathaway, who had planned to spend his 30th birthday last weekend in Capri but was instead behind bars.

Follieri’s crime? He is accused of falsely telling investors that the Vatican had appointed him to manage its financial affairs and wanted to divest itself of church properties. With the money he got, the charge against him says, he spent at least $6 million on private jets, holidays with Hathaway, dog-walkers and, intriguingly, flying a doctor to Italy from England at the cost of $30,000 for a “minor ailment”.

I wouldn’t rate the chances of this drive against white-collar crime that highly though. If such crime is rising with the economic downturn, there is no certainty that the authorities will be able to keep up.

Indeed, a recent announcement by 32 prosecutors said the authorities had been over-zealous towards large corporations in the post-Enron environment and urged caution. There is a risk when large firms are involved that those accused become scapegoats for a large institution’s poor judgment and for a general climate of panic.

But if I were Follieri I wouldn’t find comfort in all that. He is not part of a large institution. He is a bold young man with Icarus characteristics who would have behaved the way he did regardless of the economic climate. The only way he is feeling the downturn is that, as of Friday, two days after he was indicted, still no one had posted his $21 million bail.

This piece was first published by the London Evening Standard.