Sam Antar gets it — why people get involved in high stakes white collar crime — because he lived the part for 14 years. As the chief financial officer for Crazy Eddie, the family business started by his uncle and cousin, he cooked the books to eliminate taxable income, paid employees off the books, skimmed cash for personal use, committed insurance fraud, and deposited money offshore. Recalling what propelled him during those years, he says, “To me, the motivation wasn’t purely the money — it was the game.”
Citing studies and books about the nature of crime, Antar claims that only 10 percent of the general population are always ethical while 80 percent are situationally ethical. “They decide how the rules apply to them as they go along,” for example, whether to obey the speed limit. That leaves another 10 percent who are unethical, and this is true in every community. “There’s always a sub-element that is committing crimes,” he says.
In the tightknit, Syrian Jewish community that Antar was part of in Brooklyn, he and his cohorts at Crazy Eddie used that community’s cohesiveness, insularity, and fear of outsiders to protect themselves. He says, “As a criminal I took advantage of the positive elements that our community had taken to preserve itself [as outsiders in Middle Eastern societies] to preserve our criminal group.”
Antar will talk about “White Collar Fraud,” Wednesday, February 20, 6 p.m. at the Mayo Concert Hall at the College of New Jersey. For more information, contact Patty Karlowitsch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-771-2567. Visitors should park in lots 4 to 6.
Though Crazy Eddie’s was to outside eyes an inexpensive electronics store, it was started to be a criminal enterprise, says Antar. “Legitimacy was only a convenience to help us commit more criminal acts later on.”
Antar started working for Crazy Eddie at age 14, and his cousin Eddie and Eddie’s father, also Sam, were his mentors, teaching him “how to scam people.” Eventually they put him through college to earn an accounting degree — so that they would be able to commit more sophisticated crimes.
Antar managed in the beginning to keep the realities of Crazy Eddie from his parents, but then his father went through a hard time and also joined the business.
Eventually things started to fall apart at Crazy Eddie, but Antar emphasizes their crimes were not uncovered by astute auditors or government investigators. “We got caught because family members started infighting,” says Antar, adding that 47 percent of crimes are caught because of tips and another 6 to 7 percent by accident.
“Over half are not found because of any corporate governance framework,” says Antar. “They happen because people rat each other out — ex-lovers, business associates, and employees are the people who generally rat out criminals and bring them to the attention of federal investigators.” In the case of the Antar family, it was the jealousy between Eddie and his father that split the family and ultimately led to the downfall of the business.
Antar, now 56, worked for Crazy Eddie from 1971 to 1987, when the feds started investigating. For two years he lied under oath and got other people to lie, but the situation had changed by 1989, and he decided to cooperate. His cousin Eddie was preparing to leave the country, and other family members were pointing the finger at him. “They were trying to make me the fall guy,” says Antar. “The reason I cooperated was not an altruistic reason. It wasn’t a moral decision. It was self-preservation.”
Because we live in a nation of laws that Antar says “generally protect the guilty more than the innocent,” the feds are at a disadvantage in any criminal investigation. To overcome this, they often have to make deals with some crooks to catch other ones, and this is what happened with Antar. “The only important asset I had was information,” he says, “and I traded my information in return for a shorter jail sentence.”
Had he not done this, he says, he would have gone to jail for 10 years. But though he pleaded guilty to three felonies — conspiracy to commit securities fraud, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and obstruction of justice — he was sentenced to only six months of house arrest, 1,200 hours of community service, and had to pay approximately $10,000 in fines.
At the same time, he adds, the investors in Crazy Eddie never would have collected $100 million owned to them had he not turned state’s evidence. And the light sentence he received was due in part to negotiations with the victims of his cons who came forward to the judge with positive sentencing letters because their money had been returned.
Eddie, on the other hand, got eight years in prison and another brother two years. Other relatives were not convicted criminally, but were convicted in civil cases, which were easier to prove.
Not surprisingly, Antar still does not talk to some members of his family, but he says philosophically, “It is better to be an unpopular cousin than to languish in prison for 10 years.”
Antar came from a family of retailers. He graduated from Baruch College — The City University of New York with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and then scored in the top 1 to 2 percent nationally on the certified public accountant examination.
About his immediate family, Antar says, “I have three fine boys, and they all live on the straight and narrow; and I just became a grandfather a month ago,” he says. One son is a real estate analyst, the second in advertising, and the third is a drug counselor.
Today Antar teaches about white collar crime at colleges and universities; works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, and Department of Justice, teaching them how to uncover white collar crime; advises companies on white collar crime; and does forensic accounting.
Trust no one. For the business community to stay on its toes regarding white collar crime, Antar suggests that it practice something he calls “professional paranoia.” He and anti-fraud professional Jonathan Marks at Crowe Horwath and Antar both have aphorisms that seek to capture what this means. For Marks, it is “Trust is a professional hazard.” For Antar, “Don’t trust; just verify, verify, verify.”
To businesspeople Antar offers three rules to keep in mind while cultivating professional paranoia:
Prepare to be exploited. The decency of victims is a weakness that white collar criminals take advantage of. “Consider your humanity, ethics, morals, and sense of decency weaknesses to be exploited in our execution of crimes,” says Antar. “Morality and a code of ethics limits your behavior as human being and teaches you to give someone the benefit of the doubt.” White collar criminals, on the other hand, are not held back by these limitations, which gives them a big advantage.
Nice guys may not be so nice. White collar criminals seem like nice guys. “We measure our effectiveness by the comfort level of our victims,” says Antar. “If I’m a prick, you’re not going to believe my lies; you have to like me first.” Confidence men got their names for a simple reason — they need to win a person’s confidence in order to achieve their goal.
White collar criminals embody integrity. “We build walls of false integrity around ourselves to increase people’s confidence level,” says Antar. Bernie Madoff, for example, was the chair of NASDAQ; some child molesters use their religious office as a cover; and some politicians use their position to take bribes.
“All these people had so-called integrity,” says Antar, adding that when people see their great credentials, they assume that they must have integrity. But Antar warns, “Don’t take what people say for granted.”
As to whether he has changed since those days where he was in the middle of the Crazy Eddie scam, Antar notes that he has not been convicted of any crime since Crazy Eddie. And, on the positive side, he has clearly devoted himself to educating the public about the person he used to be. “Am I a different person today?” he muses, before answering with another question: “If I told you I’m not a criminal today, should you believe me?”
His answer to the second question is simple and forceful. “Have skepticism. The problem we have as a society is that we have too much unexamined acceptance; we accept things as true without thorough examination.”