In 1903, a ship full of dreamers docked in Boston. Among their number was a refugee from Lugo in northern Italy. He was cleaned out by cards sharp during the voyage, so he got here with $2.50 in his pocket. Much later, he told a newspaper, “I landed in this country with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes, and those hopes never left me.” That man’s name was Charles Ponzi.
The ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ swindle that now bears his name is one of the first lessons in the syllabus for Grifter 101. And the SEC believes that such was the business plan of Harbor City Capital, the firm where now-Rep. George Santos (if that is his real name) worked prior to his having been elected to the House of Representatives. To be fair, Santos “has said he was unaware of any fraud by Harbor City.” But he does seem to have brought his own brand of shadiness to this shady venture. from the Washington Post:
In two instances, he inflated his own academic or professional credentials, The Post found. In addition, Zoom recordings of workplace meetings show Santos offering anecdotes about his intended interactions with wealthy people — stories disputed by those involved — for potential inclusion in marketing materials or to impress prospective clients.[…]Santos claimed that he once accidentally flipped over a table while in the office of Stephen A. Schwarzman, the billionaire private equity investor and Blackstone CEO[…]“I walked out of there feeling like a completely incompetent idiot,” he added, according to Zoom footage of the meeting. A Blackstone spokesman said Schwarzman “has no recollection of any such incident or meeting Mr. Santos, and we have found no record of Mr. Santos having a business relationship with Blackstone.”
Santos’ former employer (allegedly) put its own spin on the scheme, as have dozens of other artists down through the years, including Bernie Madoff, who took it to an interplanetary level. But the basic architecture has remained essentially unchanged since Mr. Ponzi was taking the old-line Brahmins (and reportedly 75 percent of the Boston Police Department) to the cleaners.
Two of the people [Santos] pitched said they did not realize until being contacted by a reporter that the man they’d known as “George Devolder” was the newly elected congressman who among other things falsely claimed that his mother was working in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “Devolder” was Santos’s mother’s surname. “I can’t believe it,” one of the two, Al Conard, said when told that Devolder and Santos are one and the same. Conard, a 60-year-old real estate agent from Minnesota, said he lost $50,000 in Harbor City.
Go softly, George. You walk with the legends now.
(Details about Ponzi’s career come from Mitch Zuckoff’s wonderful Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, which y’all should read.)
Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently American idiotsand has been a working journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has three children.