Barry Minkow, once the FBI poster boy for fraud, teased the audience at an FBI-sponsored seminar Thursday in Santa Monica about being as stodgy as, well, bank executives.
Which is what they were, 400 strong.
Minkow paced and punched the air, half comic, half revival preacher. He told of convincing banks that he was a teen-age business genius. He told of how stock in his ZZZZ Best carpet-cleaning company came to be worth nearly $300 million, though 86% of its work existed only in forged documents.
Joking about an oversize nose, about how his probation officer would have him locked up again unless he gave a great performance, Minkow described five years of ZZZZ Best lies, forgeries, check kiting and loan fraud--and 7 1/2 years behind bars when his scams collapsed.
The lesson from his own experience and those of the executive vice presidents, doctors, lawyers and CPAs with whom he did time: No white-collar criminal ever embarks at first on frauds serious enough to land them in prison.
"At age 16, when I started in my garage, there was never the intent to defraud Wall Street when I was 20," Minkow said.
Minkow, 29, still looking much like the boy whose face was familiar on television commercials in the 1980s, urged the executives never to overlook any suspicious behavior as too minor to be material, and not to rush into deals.
"Sweat the details," Minkow said. "Because it could be evidence of a pattern of behavior."
Minkow was convicted in 1988 of 57 counts of defrauding investors and banks, using money from new dupes to pay old debts. While awaiting sentencing, he became a convert to Christianity. In prison, he earned three correspondence degrees from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
He now earns money running errands for the lawyer who represented him while establishing his new business: giving "Fraudo Dynamics" seminars and marketing videotapes nationwide to help accountants and corporate directors spot scams. Most of the earnings go to a trust fund for his victims.
Minkow appeared free of charge at the Los Angeles FBI's fourth-annual bank fraud seminar.
He said he had learned to cheat in small ways beginning at age 9, when, in order to be the No. 1 gatherer of newspaper subscriptions on a team of canvassers, he forged his lead--and got away with it.
"Isn't it interesting that a $280-million fraud probably started there," Minkow said.
Most audience members appeared impressed, including Jay Hartman, a Sanwa Bank executive who approached Minkow after his speech to say that he, too, had sold newspaper subscriptions at age 9.
"I tried forging them too," Hartman said. "But I got caught."
Dan Martino, supervisor of an FBI bank fraud squad, recalled the first time he saw Minkow. It was 1988, at the Terminal Island federal lockup. Minkow, pacing back and forth in a small room with his lawyer, had picked up a chair and was threatening to kill the counselor.
"He was about as high-strung as they come. He's still high-strung, but he has a good attitude," Martino said. "You never know how he'll turn out. But he's entitled to be given a chance, to have another shot."