Long Story Short: Family affairs

August 13, 2018



Illustration by JP Thimot

 

True crime story

 

Back in September, we reported that the US House of Representatives Committee on Ethics extended its review of Congressman Chris Collins’ role in attracting investors to an Australian biotech company, Innate Immunotherapeutics. The committee said it would announce its course of action on or before October 12.

 

The FBI couldn’t wait

 

On Wednesday, Collins was arrested after a federal grand jury indicted him on insider trading charges, along with lying to federal agents. He is accused of informing his son Cameron about an unsuccessful drug trial by Innate. As a board member of the company, Collins was notified by phone four days before the news became public. Being the only product made by Innate Immunotherapeutics, failure of the drug to treat muscular dystrophy meant the company’s stock would be taking a swan dive when the results were announced. The indictment alleges that it took all of fifteen seconds after learning of the trial results for the Congressman to call his Cameron, who was also a big investor in the company.

 

Having been tipped off, authorities say Cameron Collins quickly dumped most of his shares, as did his fiance’s father, Stephen Zarsky. Both have been accused of insider trading and lying to the FBI. All three men are charged with conspiracy, securities fraud, and wire fraud. (No collusion though; that’s not a crime.) There are also six other unnamed conspirators, some of whom turn out to be other Republican Congressmen. WGRZ published the extensive indictment on its website.

 

Cameron Collins’ girlfriend Lauren Zarsky, and her mother, Dorothy Zarsky also unloaded stock in the company, but agreed to settle charges filed against them by paying back their ill-gotten gains plus interest and civil penalties, which sounds a lot like a guilty plea. Lauren Zarksy is also suspended from practicing as a certified public accountant before the Securities and Exchange Commission for at least five years.

 

After the charges were made public, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that Collins would lose his coveted post on the Energy and Commerce Committee until the matter is settled. "While his guilt or innocence is a question for the courts to settle, the allegations against Representative Collins demand a prompt and thorough investigation by the House Ethics Committee," he said, which is ironic, because as we mentioned at the top of this story, such an investigation has been ongoing for many months.

 

Imagine you’re Collins

 

Before the drug trial failed, the Congressman was overheard bragging that he had made a lot of millionaires in Buffalo, by urging friends and relatives to buy into Innate Immunotherapeutics. For that, he was accused of exploiting insider information to enrich associates while inflating the stock’s value. That’s what the ethics committee was originally looking into. One can only imagine the acid bomb in Collins’ gut when he got the bad news—during a Whitehouse picnic—that those “millionaire” stockholders were going to lose nearly everything they invested. It’s the chance you take when you tip friends and family off on a “sure thing.” It’s the chance they take, when they act on the tip.

 

Well, it’s supposed to be a matter of chance.

 

Risky business

 

Experts say it’s perilous, if not unethical, for members of Congress to hold individual securities (stocks in a specific business) or serve on boards of publicly traded companies. Congress makes laws impacting industry, leading to potential conflicts of interest. Collins—who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress—was well aware of this. Was it an act of hubris when he ran and was reelected to the Innate Immunotherapeutics board of directors after the stock collapsed? Or was he strengthening his defense by playing the role of passionate supporter of medical research?

 

The conundrum

 

Collins represents District 27, which includes portions of suburban Buffalo and Rochester, along with rural areas in-between. It’s a district so gerrymandered in favor of Republicans that it was considered virtually impossible for him to lose the upcoming November election. In an email to supporters, Collins initially vowed to run for re-election, and clear his name. But Saturday, he announced that, “in the best interests” of his constituents “the Republican Party, and President Trump’s agenda” he is suspending his campaign. But he says he will, “continue to fight the meritless charges” brought against him. Nationally, Democrats have been quick to remind voters that Collins was the first in Congress to support Donald Trump for president. He is the latest in a long list of Trump associates to be embroiled in scandals—a swamp that requires continuous draining.

 

It’s going to take some tricky maneuvering by both the Republican and Independence parties to completely remove Collins from the ballot. And it’s not clear if, how, or with whom they will replace him. As a result, some now view Democrat Nate McMurray as a viable candidate.

 

 

In the Pink

 

It’s 3 a.m. You climb onto a ripped barstool, half-hammered and hungry, and belly-up to the bar. The place is dark, bathed in dim red light, which is a good thing because the darkness conceals some of the grime. Anyway, the gloomy atmosphere nicely complements the bar’s musky aroma. A DJ spins obscure tunes that fit the punk-grunge-eclectic mood of the place. There’re a couple women sitting mid-bar laughing too loud. The rest of the crowd is a mix of geeks, freaks, eccentrics, and hardcore music fans. You think about hitting the john, but after a peek inside you decide it can wait. Anyway, you’re here for a steak sandwich. It’s not on the menu, because there is no menu, you just have to know, or ask the surly bartender.

 

Some might think you’ve hit bottom. They would be wrong. You’re doing just fine, actually. In fact, you’re in The Pink.

 

The story

 

The bar formerly known as the Pink Flamingo, officially named 223 Allen but universally called The Old Pink or just The Pink, is now something of a national landmark. It’s one of seven “dive bars” across the United States recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), an organization which protects places that represent our “diverse cultural experiences.” And The Pink is nothing if not diverse.

 

This summer, the NTHP teamed up with Seagram’s 7 Crown Whiskey (a fitting dive bar hooch) to celebrate "careworn" booze joints everywhere and to raise funds. They're asking people to tweet their favorite dive bars with the hashtag #SaveTheDiveBar. Seagram's 7 makes a dollar donation to the NTHP for each tagged tweet, up to $25,000. In their description of The Pink, the NTHP mentions their legendary steak sandwich. There’s also a fried bologna variety that’s pretty spectacular. Both are Buffalo style cheap-n-ample.

 

But what’s with that name?

As mentioned, many years ago, the bar was called the Pink Flamingo. The owner moved the business—along with the name—to a new location further downtown. The “new” Pink Flamingo didn’t last, but the old location carried on as before. With no sign on the building, people began referred to the original location as the “old Pink Flamingo,” which quickly got shortened to the “Old Pink,” and finally, just “The Pink.”

 

What’s with that paint job?

 

Molly Brinkworth took over the bar at the end of 1990, and, in 1992, she ran a “Paint the Pink” contest, sponsored by Artvoice newspaper. People submitted their ideas, and the current design—purple with green flames—was selected (though the artist is now unknown). The Allentown Village Society was none too happy with the paint job at the time, but the bar took its customary screw-you stance to the opposition. Now it’s considered a mural, perhaps the oldest among many that have since sprung up in the city.

 

 

Scamming the scammer

 

Most everyone who uses email or Facebook has experienced scam attempts. If you have a website with anything marketable—in my case, art—you’ve likely received emails from individuals with limited command of the English language, who want to buy whatever you’re selling. Hopefully, you smell something phishy, and delete.

 

But for the jaded few who want to see where the scam is going, there’s another approach.

 

The story

 

On June 22, I was contacted by “powell”:



Hello,

 

we are looking to hire a private coach for my son, If you are available kindly get back to me with your rates per hour and hopefully an arrangement would be made.

Regards

 

powell

‚Äč

I guessed powell was asking for some kind of art “coach,” but what kind exactly? “Painting coach? Or drawing? Or writing? What is your son's interest?” I asked.

 

“Thanks for getting back” replied powell, “we live in Dublin, Ireland and my son is relocating to your region so i would like to know your rate per hour and he`s a beginner also David is 14 years old.”

 

You can almost hear the Irish brogue.

 

Powell and I exchanged a couple more emails, as I played along. This was no parent; he didn’t ask the sort of questions a responsible adult would pose. He wanted to get fourteen-year-old David hooked up with a stranger in a foreign country quick: “Note: David is very fast learner,” added powell, “you'll never regret having him around.”

 

Twenty-five dollars an hour, I offered.

 

The scam

 

A frequent internet con is when the online grifter arranges to send the mark a certified bank check (often for some product they don’t actually want), only the check is made out for too much money. Oops, the scammer says; just deposit the check anyway and send the difference back in another certified check. The mark appreciates the grifter’s apparent trust, and a certified check seems safe. After all, it’s guaranteed by a bank. What a lot of people don’t realize is that banks will likely accept and deposit bogus certified checks without questioning them. That’s your responsibility. Then, after several days the customer is notified that the check was fraudulent, and the funds will be deducted from their account.

 

Powell was running a variation on this con.

 

The pitch

 

What follows is probably the most convoluted scam story ever conceived, as powell laid his elaborate trap:

 

“I'm delighted to know we are in agreement here and I'm happy to know you are able to take David with the Lessons. I Just spoke to my Wife about your total rates and at this point, I'm most delighted to say we have a deal and have also informed my son, so he can't wait to meet you to get started. I want you to know that my Wife and I had initially hired a private instructor for David and he was supposed to take him for 5 months which we already paid him upfront for but just before we concluded on lesson days and time, he lost his wife and decided to quit teaching and take proper care of his family two boys and a girl. We concluded and he has agreed to have my money sent to any alternative teacher who'll be handling David lessons. I could have had my sister receive the funds for me and pay you after each lessons as the case maybe but my sister at this time is 8 months pregnant with her first child and i don't think her husband who's out of town will appreciate me giving her any extra activities if you know what i mean. I've just concluded with David previous teacher to send you all the money he owes me to you since am not in the states to cash US checks, he'll send you a Cashiers Check. I will need your First and last name to issue the check to you and your address where check will be sent to. If You receive the check go ahead and deduct your money for David lessons as agreed at ($300) for upfront payment. The previous Teacher owes me $4,090. Pls i will need you to take your fees as agreed and pls help us have what's left sent to David travel agent as the money will be used in securing his flight tickets/BTA and travel documents down to the states. Since we're not available to handle all this. If this is fine with you, I'll need you to provide me with your name as to be written on the payment (Check), your Address (where the payment will be sent to) and your phone number and I'll instruct to have the payment issued and sent out to your location asap and am sure you understand and i will appreciate the help alot thank you. Do have a great week ahead and get back to me so i can make relevant arrangements, also anytime or day of the week that suits you best for lessons works just fine with us as David schedule for now is fully open. In a week or two from this date my son will arrive in my sister's house, so two days after he arrived lessons can get started if you available. In addition, lessons can be held in any place you recommend. Regards and thank you for your help and understanding, looking forward in working with you.”

 

Sounded reasonable to me. Send the check, I said.

 

The sting

 

About a week later, a very convincing Navy Federal Credit Union check arrived by certified mail. It even had a light-reflective watermark. Here’s something else many people don’t know; you can call any institution that issues a certified check to confirm its authenticity. In my case, I confirmed its fakeness.

 

I wrote to powell and told him I had the check. He instructed me to tell him when I deposited it. I waited a couple days and said the check had been cashed. “Good to read from you,” said powell incomprehensibly, “the agent request you purchase Money order of $900 each (4 pieces) which total $3,600 and have it deposited into BANK OF America account.” Notice how powell has miscalculated the math, so I would get paid an extra $190 dollars beyond what we had agreed. Presumably, greed is a brain-softener.

 

It took another email to get the bank account number. I should mention that, in my experience, no one will utilize this kind of information to catch the would-be thief. Not the bank; not the police; not the attorney general; not the FBI. I’ve tried; there’s so much of this stuff going on that no one even makes an effort. You’re on your own.

 

Powell wanted my phone number, but I said I was working every day on a lift painting a mural (true), so I couldn’t answer the phone. I stalled a couple more days and powell got frantic: “What is your cell phone number it doesnt take forever to make a deposit we cant wait till monday please visit bank of America first thing tomorrow.”

 

I waited two more days and sent the following message:

 

Powell,

 

I won't be sending that money. I’ve known this was a scam from the start; it was obvious. You’re not very good it this. I wanted you to experience being scammed. I'll add your check to my growing collection of fake checks from scammers.

 

I wonder if your mother knows you are a thief. What would she think? If you believe in a God, your punishment awaits you.

 

Goodbye.

 

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