Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Meadow's Piano

-You're kidding.
-I'm not.
-Someone paid $300,000 for a piano? What? Jesus played it or something?
-Hey, it was a 1917 Steinway,
-Hold on, let me look. Says here that, what was it, an M or a C?
-How do I know?
-Look it up.
-An M.
-Let me see that article. You know, you're an idiot; maybe that's why you're still writing for a no readership blog. It was his wife's diamond necklace that sold for $300,000. The piano went for 42 grand.
-That’s still a bundle. Here, the Internet says it's worth maybe twenty-five, thirty tops.
-Yeah, one of his neighbors bought it. Another mogul out on the island.
-That's what it says?
-Lemme see that laptop. Hmm, nice looking piano, I'll say that for it.
-Here's another ad for one, only $2,500. And look, here's a website, a thread
says, wait, one guy says 'snap it up,' another guy says must be a scam, ‘some Internet scam,’ then, can you believe it, costs like $2,500 just to get it tuned and whatever, if it's in bad shape. Keep the thing tuned and whatever. Oh, and here, says it costs like $5,000 to restring it. Take a look:
‘This Steinway piano was RESTRUNG in April 2008 and REFINISHED in 2005 . The finish is mahogany satin... and the sound is amazing! Truly, one of the best years for Steinway ~*EXCELLENT CONDITION *~ **DETAILS** YEAR BUILT ~ 1917 MODEL ~ M ~ SIZE ~5' 7” . New Mahogany satin finish ( 2005 ) . New strings (2008 ) .New #2 pins ( 2008 ) . New pin block ( 2008 ) . New Steinway decals ( 2008 ) . IVORY KEYS ( EXCELLENT , SNOW WHITE , NO CHIPS OR CRACKS ) . ORIGINAL SOUNDBOARD ORIGINAL %100 STEINWAY ACTION REGULATED (2008).’
-A scam, for sure, they say.
-Well, what're you going to do?
-This guy Meadows, that owned the piano that's being auctioned off. He was into scams wasn't he?
-That's like saying that Bret Favre has something to do with football.
-He stole like what, 50 billion dollars?
-Closer to 60 I think. Didn't exactly steal it, though. Worked a con game. Invested people's money into the stock market, paid them a dividend at the end of the year, kept getting more people to invest in his fund, kept paying out dividends, only problem was he was spending the capital fast as it came in. Paying the dividends with the money the new people invested.
-So he could buy a $20,000 piano and a $300,000 diamond necklace?
-And yachts and houses, and who knows what all. Way beyond my pay scale that kind of stuff.
-Well, he's in jail, now.
-Never got the money back, though. The government. The people he ripped off.
-Yeah. He claimed there never was any money. All on paper, paid out as fast as he collected it, spending a bundle in between.
-You believe that?
-Why not?
-Guy like that, you couldn't believe him he told you he was standing in front of you. Could be one of those sci-fi hologram tricks from out of star wars or whatever.
-That kinda money he could do near 'bout anything. 60 billion dollars. How much is that, anyway?
-60 billion dollars, that’s how much. What kind of a question is that?
-I mean, that number is so huge I can't imagine it. You know, like those school kids in Alabama that couldn't imagine what it meant that 6,000,000 people died in the Holocaust, so the teachers had them collect paper-clips until they had 6,000,000. Then they understood. Each paper clip came with a story of some type, from actors, doctors, people all over the world sent in paper clips, even bought a boxcar used to transport Jews to the concentration camps and put the paper clips in, made a museum.
-So what're you saying, how many boxcars would 60 billion paper-clips fill?
-How much money is it, is what I'm saying?
-A lot.
-That kinda money, you had it, what would you do?
-What do you mean what would I do?
-Go to jail? That kinda money you think you’d just go to jail? Smart guy rips off 60 mil, just says, okay, cuff me, I’ve had enough? You think he’d do that?
-You mean bribe his way out.
-60 billion is a lot of paper-clips.
-Bribe who?
-Yeah, whatever. But he’d bribe everyone he could, that kinda money. It talks, you know, in any language.
-I dunno, disappear.
-But he's in jail. He was on trial. We both covered it. Handcuffs. The works. Put in the van and driven away.
-Maybe it wasn't him.
-No, really, maybe it was like, a double.
-A double? You mean like a twin brother? He had a brother, didn't look nothing like him.
-No, you know, someone with plastic surgery, made up to look like him.
-Just like that? He gets busted, and in comes this guy looks like him? Yeah, I've seen movies like that. Doubles. Guys who look like the president. Take a lot of planning to pull it off.
-Hey, the guy conned people for thirty years. He had to know the day was coming the cops would be knocking on his door. So he has a contingency plan.
-But who's gonna want to go to jail for life?
-Someone gets paid a lot of money.
-And no place to spend it? He's in jail, dummy.
-Yeah, but he's got family, kids, grandchildren. Enough money he could set up a trust fund for them, keep them rich for a couple of generations, maybe more. Give him two or three billion paper-clips. Invest it in Switzerland, or the Cayman Islands, whatever.
-As if it’s that easy.
-Hey, Meadows took the fall for everyone, didn't he? His kids, except for the one with the guilty conscience or thought the cops were on his trail, and who killed himself; his brother, his wife, all got off clean. Meadows pleaded guilty, kept his mouth shut, and went to jail. He could have pleaded not guilty, appealed, would have taken him ten years to go to jail. Why'd he just go quietly? Not stall?
-Because he wanted to protect his family. Keep the investigation from including them.
-Yeah, all of a sudden this scumbag is an upstanding citizen. A community minded individual. Nah, I bet he had a plan, that's why.
-And? What about DNA? You think the authorities didn't double check he was who they thought he was?
-Why would they? They had him. He confessed. He'd never been arrested before. No fingerprints to compare to. He could be anyone. He could be Elvis for all anyone knew.
-And he’s where now?
-I dunno. Anywhere.
-And he had this stand-in all ready?
-Like I said, guy knew he was running a scam. Been doing it for 30 years. Couldn't believe it took that long to catch him. Guy like that, wouldn't he have some escape hatch? Some way out?
-Like having a double?
-Yeah, like having a double, living in some place like, I dunno, an ashram in India, with a beard and a sari. That's his job. Gets a monthly salary, his family gets a monthly salary. Live like royalty. All this guy has to do is lay low until he's called on to go to jail.
-If he's ever called on to go to jail.
- If he gets caught.
-Yep. If. And when. Then Meadows heads out of the country on a boat, gets to I dunno, Cuba, the Bahamas, Curacao, where he's got a plastic surgeon waiting, does his face, a belly tuck, changes his hair, his ears, guy comes out looking forty not seventy, takes over running some business he's started years earlier, or moves into an estate that he never occupied, just rented out, who knows. And he's gone. And then there’s his kid. Committed suicide right? Then was cremated. Pretty convenient don’t you think? No way to check DNA. Maybe he wasn’t him, you know? Another double. This time double-crossed.
-You're kidding, right?
-Nope. Well, maybe about his kid. Maybe.
-Wouldn’t he get bored?
-Yeah, guy like that, always playing chess with the law, adrenalin pumping. I mean the guy’s in the game his whole life, like a super salesman, he can't shut it off just because the store closes for the night; he carries on being that super salesman, at dinner, at the club, wherever.
-You're saying?
-He's still a thief. He's still into scams. He can't give it up.
-He's a scam junkie.
-Yeah, a scam junkie.
-Kinda guy who would try to scam anyone.
-Yeah, but it would have to be high-risk scam. Close to the edge. Keep the blood flowing.
-Guy who would try to sell you a phony piano just like the one the Feds were auctioning off downtown.
-(softly) Yeah, guy like that.
-Lemme see that laptop. Where was the ad for this piano?
-Here, how do we find out where it is?
-Look at this, the end of the thread. Say it was a scam. Our guy trolling for credit card numbers before any thing else. Sucker pays 42 grand for a piano, pays by credit card, say. Then here’s the scammer, he owns the credit card from then on. Buys himself a Mercedes just for the fun of it. And he may get other credit card numbers, too. Steal their identity, just for the challenge.
-Sounds like him.
-But how do we find him?
-Oh, we'll find him. He doesn’t think anyone’s looking for him. Maybe toss him
a credit card as a hook.
-Think there's a reward?
-If it's him? Sure.
-I only hope the reward payment’s not in paper-clips.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Trees Don't Vote

The recent mega-blaze in the Carmel forest was partly the blame of the JNF.

JNF planted pines because they were fast growing. Trees, according to old Turkish law, were taxed; so many pre-State Arab landowners uprooted their trees to avoid the tax. This was why Israel was partially barren when the State was declared. In Arab custom planted trees are proof of ownership of land. Also, shade and foliage were needed to prevent erosion. Pines were chosen. Recently the choice of pines was questioned since the cones and spurs from the pine are highly acidic and prohibit other plant life anywhere near them.

That said, pines are what were planted, and as most people know pines are used as starter wood for a fire, then cedar or oak or olive wood to keep the fire burning long-term.

The JNF is now out and raising money to replace the pines. The JNF chief was on the air last night saying over 50,000 dunam (about 13,000 acres) of trees went up in flames. The UJA is also running a campaign to raise money for relief. What money and what relief? I didn't look at the JUF campaign pleas, yet. Hopefully they'll pay for fire-fighting planes and fire-trucks. The real problem is the fire department itself. No fire fighters' school exists. Scarce and out-dated equipment, and lack of staff are the norm.

Last night a group of fire fighters appeared on TV sitting around, taking a breather. They responded to the reporters’ questions about salaries, stating that they hadn't received a salary in two months. Another report on another channel had a fire-fighter explaining that many appointments to the fire department are political, either Likud, the ruling party, or Shas, the party that controls the Ministry of the Interior, that controls the fire department, with inexperienced appointees filling positions required by professionals. These and other disturbing facts are now pouring out.

Bit of background. The political struggle going on now to avoid blame for the tragedy is in early stages. As was said above, the fire department falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of the Interior. Shas leader Eli Ishai is the Minister of that department. He is being attacked for not doing anything for the fire department. He claims he did. Memos and such are produced to verify his claims. Commentators say that these 'behind covering' memos are standard procedure. The paper is there but no one does anything about it.

Ishai said he fought for 500 million shekels (about US $138 Million) for the fire department but was only given 100 million shekels (About US$$ 27 million). Truth is he didn't fight very hard. The fire department workers went on strike a while ago, not one minister really paid attention. Following the War In Lebanon II, when a good hunk of the upper Galilee was set ablaze by Hezbollah rockets, and the inability of the fire department to cope with the blaze became evident, a government report was issued stating plainly the fire department was weak in so many areas a disaster was waiting to happen.

But who pays? Trees don't vote. Shas leader Ishai fought for money for Yeshivot, and other ultra-Orthodox causes, but did little or nothing for the fire department. Remember he has one budget for his ministry and that has to be doled out to the elements in his constituency to keep them happy and voting. Like I said, trees don't vote.

A fire-fighter officer told an Israel TV reporter that the money from the Ministry of the Interior for the fire department, the same ministry that funds the local municipalities, is turned over the local government bodies. But these government bodies are chronically short of cash, and use the money for other shortfalls, not to pay fire fighters' salaries, or buy equipment.

This produces a situation where one firefighters' salary, or even half-a-salary, is designated for half-a-dozen towns and villages. So one fire fighter is responsible for 40,000 dunams. But in truth there isn't a fire fighter, just a slot on the books, with the money going elsewhere. Ditto for equipment. The result, an understaffed, under-equipped, under-trained fire department incapable of putting out anything but a simple fire in a forest and much better trained and equipped to put out urban factory and building fires, but even then sorely lacking in the right stuff.

Eli Ishai is a very aggressive and wily politician. When interviewed at the staging location during the mega-blaze, he took the offensive, yelling at reporters that he had done everything he could and more. Later he told the press that he was a sacrificial goat, a poor Sephardi right-winger being lead to the slaughter.

In truth the case against Ishai is not racism but government priorities. The needs of the fire department have been common knowledge for at least a decade, but no one was willing to pay from their budget to upgrade and staff and pay for the necessary equipment. Now Ishai says he's been asking that the fire department be moved from the Ministry of the Interior to Homeland Security, but no one did anything about his request. A request is even on the books for a fire-fighting plane. But no plane was ever bought. In fact, the Army once had a special unit to fight fires, but the unit was disbanded.

Moving the fire department on paper is easy, but assigning a tangible budget is another. Should Eli Ishai manage to move the fire-department to another ministry he will have passed this hot potato to another ministry, but then the question is will another ministry treat the situation any differently?

The answer is 42 and counting. That's the number of people killed so far by this fire. Three others are still in critical condition. The deaths of these hapless victims push a mundane bureaucratic issue into another realm entirely. Someone commented that after the War in Lebanon II heads rolled. Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign as well as then Minister of Defense Amir Peretz; Army top brass retired. This analyst thought the same thing would happen after this tragic fiasco.

Israel's PM Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu, to his credit, was on the case as soon as it was clear that the forest fire was beyond the capabilities of the Israeli fire department. He phoned abroad and over 30 countries agreed to pitch in, sending planes and manpower. Even Greece and Turkey, who hate each other, joined in the effort and worked together. And remember Turkey, at odds with Israel over a variety of issues, also surprised the locals by lending a hand. The Israel government also hired a US based "super-tanker" Boeing 747 capable of dropping 92,000 liters of fire-retardant in a single pass. Russia donated two smaller planes, each with 30,000 liters of material. It was these planes, along with the scores of others from around the world that helped contain the fire.

Now Bibi has gone on TV and committed his government to the purchase of two or three of the fire fighting planes like those sent by Greece and Turkey. Bibi also promises a new renovated fire department. Perhaps he'll actually do something about his promises.

But the problem behind the fire is Netanyahu's government. Eli Ishai represents Shas. That party is like a hungry child devouring whatever comes within reach and asking for more. It is not that the move is on to oust Eli Ishai, the move is really to oust Shas.

The Shas' outlook hurt Israel when a group of Christian evangelists offered to buy modern fire trucks some months back. According to the Jerusalem Post Eli Ishai turned them down because of religious reasons. Analysts say that should Netanyahu reform his coalition and replace Shas with another party, one that has members who pay taxes and serve in the army, then perhaps the massive split forming in Israeli society will be healed.

Meanwhile Bibi Netanyahu is reportedly concerned about keeping the ultra-orthodox parties in place should he succeed in hammering out a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu is counting on the ultra-orthodox, who are being well-paid now from the government budget in the form of subsidies to their yeshiva students and other perks, to vote for his plan when the time comes.

Pundits think that better perhaps would be for Bibi to discard the ultra-orthodox and take his chances with a moderate non-religious party. But, according to informed sources, Bibi thinks of history, and his place in it, and the history books won't write about him for saving trees, but will write about him for making peace. Is this philosophy shortsighted? According to Wikileaks the Americans and many Arab countries consider the Palestinian issue a huge stumbling block to dealing with the Iranian issue that nearly everyone apparently consider highly volatile. The push for a PA/Israeli peace treaty is considered a necessary precursor to dealing with Iran. Should this attitude change, say the analysts, then Bibi would rethink the make-up of his government coalition.

Commentators say that a new coalition would change the way Israel behaves towards its own citizens: forcing the ultra-orthodox to go to work, join the army, pay taxes. This change would, according to analysts, insure Israel's viability financially and defensively for years to come. But can this change be accomplished under US pressure to make a deal with the Palestinians? Apparently Bibi doesn't think so. This means, according to pundits, that Shas and the other ultra-orthodox parties supporting Netanyahu in the Knesset will continue to get their way, receiving money funneled to yeshiva students (many of whom are fictitious, used as a way to gain more money for the yeshivas) rather than the university students or even the fire department.

After 80 odd hours the physical fire was out but the political fire was smoldering. Bibi acted decisively, unlike George W. Bush during Katrina, nor Barak Obama during the oil spill. Perhaps this decisiveness will save his political hide even though he knew about these fire department shortfalls for years.

Eli Ishai has been calling for a commission of inquiry knowing he has the paper to cover his behind. Analysts say these commissions take months to form and a year to study the material and another half-year to reach conclusions that rarely have any real effect.

However, the irascible State Controller Michael Lindenstraus is preparing his own report on the shortfalls that caused the disaster. This may well fan the smoldering political coals and create a new and powerful fire department capable of handling a fire and preventing it from becoming a mega blaze.

Trees don't vote. That's been the problem. But over 40 deaths justifiably have gravitas. Will that bus tragedy change a government?
Time will tell.