As I passed by 175 Round Hill Road yesterday I spied Walt Noel pushing a hand mower around the front yard. I stopped to greet him but when he saw who I was he looked stricken.
“Holy cow, Chris, if Monica sees you here – whoo boy! Let’s go over to the Club before she comes out.”
“I thought …” I said, but Walt quickly corrected me.
“That we were toast over there? Ha! You know how many Round Hill members can’t pay their dues these days? I’ve still got a pile of” – here he paused to make rabbit ears in the air – ” ‘investors’ money to spend and I’m doing it. They love me over there, at least until the annual meeting in September. Let’s go.”
Seated at the bar, Mojitos in hand, Walt began speaking.
“This is just such nonsense, Chris, I mean, we were the victims of a fraud so sophisticated that even the SEC couldn’t detect it. How were we supposed to know anything was wrong?”
“But what about conducting your own due diligence?” I asked.
“We did that,” he insisted. “We had a due diligencer – it was part of the Greenwich High School program where you take in a senior for the last month of the school year, you know? Every year, we’d bring a kid in, ask him to check out our investments, let us know if there was anything wrong. There never was.
“And we didn’t stop there, let me tell you. You know that we had over 120 people working at Fairfield Greenwich, right? Sure, most of them were salesmen, but we had a team that did nothing all day but scour Wall Street, looking for investment opportunities for our investors. Every day!”
“Yet you always ended up giving the money to Bernie,” I pointed out, “and never found a better or even a different investment.”
Walt took a long pull from his Mojito and signalled the bartender for another. Raising his famous caterpillar eyebrow (s?) he said, “what other investment let us skim off 1% of the assets invested plus 20% of the profits?”
“So that was the best investment for you,” I conceded, “but best for your clients?”
“Clients?” Walt spluttered. “You think Jamie Cayne ran Bear Stearns for the benefit of clients? You think he bankrolled every penny stock boiler room in the country for the benefit of some granny in Peoria? What, she needed to lose her life savings and Bear Stearns was just accommodating her? Where’s Jamie now? Safe in retirement, playing bridge with Bill Gates. And Dickie Fuld – he ran Lehman for its clients? Funny how he got rich, they got diddly-doo, isn’t it? Where’s Hank Greenberg today? Not sweating in depositions like I am, let me tell you Chris. All those guys cleaned up and got out of Dodge while I’ve got these bloodsuckers crawling all over me, trying to bring me down. Life is just gosh-darn unfair.”
“But Walt,” I tried again, “what exactly did you do for all that money you were pulling in? Hundreds of millions of dollars in fees?”
“We kept up appearances,” Walt said, “made people feel happy and secure. They’d come visit us in the City – you ever see that place? I could have used veneer – Andres begged me to, but no, I insisted on solid mahogany; that’s full quarter – inch wood on those walls, and genuine marble in the bathrooms. Top of the line computer stuff too. We replaced it every year. We didn’t need to – never used it – but it gave the clients confidence. We gave them a happy two decades, Chris; every month they’d get a nice statement, printed on expensive bond paper, telling them they were richer than they’d been thirty days before. That kind of peace of mind? Priceless. No, we earned our money alright, every penny of it.”
“Are you at all sorry that you’ve ruined your friends? That they’re penniless?
“Well of course I am. This threatens to ruin me too, or it would if I hadn’t worked with Andy and Mark to stash things away.”
“Andy and Mark Madoff?” I asked.
“Yeah. Remember the last weeks in December, after Bernie had been caught but before Picard, that son-of-a-gun, confiscated the jet? The boys flew all over the world, and I went with them. Almost missed the club’s Christmas party because of it – that was close. Boy, Monica would have been mad then, let me tell – “
“So you won’t get harmed by all this?” I interrupted.
“Sure I will, and I’m very disappointed. The cottage has to go – say, you’re a realtor, what can I get for it?”
“Fire sale price” I said, “maybe three and a half.”
Walt shook his head. “Too little. I may have to talk to Ric Bourke – he’s got some deal going on with his own place, wants to get rid of it before his own trial ends – maybe his buyer will want my cottage for guests.
“But anyway,” he continued, “sure I’ve been hurt. Round Hill’s going, I don’t even want the Hamptons place anymore – between Bernie’s investors and mine, the beach might as well have sand fleas; one of the girls, I forget which one, has to sell off her Brownstone, and Mustique …. well my lawyer told me they have an extradition treaty with the U.S. I understand North Korea’s okay, but their winters are just horrible. So ….”
He glanced at his Rolex. “Holy cow, I’ve got to get back before Monica finds out I’m missing. She worries about me, you know.” He winked. “If even she thinks I’ve got Alzheimer’s, how’s anyone else to know different?”
“Anything you want to say to your clients, Walt?” I asked as we strolled back across Round Hill Road.
He paused in the road, forcing a pick-up truck filled with Colombian gunmen to swerve around us. “I told Andres not to crap in his own backyard,” Walt said, watching the truck disappear up the road. “I wish him luck, wherever he’s got himself to.” He turned to me at the entrance to his driveway, raised his finger skyward and said, “I’d tell them this: you had twenty good years with me, and then we all hit a little rough patch for a couple of months. All in all, is that so bad?”
I left him trying to start his mower and I didn’t have the heart to point out to him that it lacked an engine. In the background, I could hear Monica yelling for the Fabulous Five to exit the pool and come back to the house to finish packing.