It took a jury in Little Rock, Ark., an hour to convict Fred Celani of fraud recently, swiftly ending the latest scam by a baby-faced bear of a man described by authorities as among the nation's most persuasive, inventive and irrepressible crooks.
But for the U.S. Justice Department officials who prosecuted him, the strange--and potentially embarrassing--saga of former FBI informant Frederick George Celani is far from over.
When Celani was arrested Oct. 14 on the fraud charges that led to his conviction last week, the blustery paralegal with the long criminal record was operating a legal center in North Hollywood representing hundreds of clients. Most were federal prison inmates and their families, who say they were victimized by Celani and his false promises of an overturned conviction or early release.
Federal authorities, responding to such complaints, are investigating in hopes of tracing what could be millions of dollars the defunct Center for Constitutional Law and Justice received from clients across the country. The State Bar of California also is investigating and has tried to help arrange counsel for the clients left in legal limbo when the center shut down with Celani's arrest.
And, in a strange sidelight to the case, some elected officials and lawyers are wondering if Celani's activities may have harmed the defense of Damian Monroe Williams, accused of beating trucker Reginald O. Denny in the Los Angeles riots last year. The legal center briefly represented Williams, whose trial began Wednesday in Los Angeles. After Celani's arrest, he said he tried to sabotage Williams' defense but a judge ruled that Celani and the center had not tainted the case beyond repair.
As disturbing as the allegations of defrauding inmates and their families are, some of Celani's former associates and clients say they went to authorities as early as 1989 to allege that the ex-convict was masterminding a nationwide scam.
"What blows me away is, why didn't anyone do anything?" asked paralegal Robert Richman, who complained to the FBI while working for a legal center Celani directed while imprisoned in Wisconsin in 1989. "They've been trailing him for years but letting him go about his business."
Despite years of FBI investigations that followed him from state to state, federal authorities said Celani somehow continued a life of crime that appears to have escalated in scope and destructiveness even after he was imprisoned for fraud and racketeering in 1986.
Celani, 44, has an explanation for the freedom he enjoyed. After his arrest, and in his recent trial, he said he could not be prosecuted because he had been acting as a government operative. His Center for Constitutional Law and Justice was not a legal clinic for hapless inmates at all, he added, but a "secret intelligence group" controlled by Congress and the FBI.
Among other things, he told the judge and jury that he made sure the legal center represented Williams so he could help the government sabotage the defense.
Federal officials privately call such claims ridiculous. But they confirm that Celani was an informant for the FBI and a congressional watchdog subcommittee.
Now some people are wondering whether there really is something to Celani's claims of government complicity. It's either that, they suspect, or lack of interest or bumbling by authorities.
Or maybe, just like a lot of others, federal authorities have simply been outwitted by the dimple-chinned college dropout, who taught himself the law while in prison, and then devised ways to break it.
"It sounds like this guy not only was protected, but that some of his allegations may have truth to them," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). "The circumstances are bizarre enough to raise some questions."
FBI agents, federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials in Los Angeles and Washington have refused to comment on Celani's activities and their investigations of him. Some government officials privately concede that Celani has repeatedly escaped prosecution because of the Byzantine web he has spun.
At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 250 pounds, the imposing con man has a Svengali-like personality and a gift for involving so many unwitting associates in his alleged schemes that it is impossible to determine whom to prosecute, they say. Fond of using aliases, Celani became an expert at bending some laws without breaking them.
Celani's criminal career began in the early 1970s, when he was convicted of conning investors in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., selling interests in a bogus $100-million waterfront development deal.
By 1981, Celani was out of prison and in Los Angeles setting up fraudulent business schemes, court records show. He played the role of a millionaire businessman, renting a $10,000-a-month house in Brentwood, collecting $345,000 worth of gold Krugerrands, buying sports cars, a speedboat and a Rolex watch.