I don’t remember the names of most of the people I prosecuted during my first year with the Southern District of New York; as a rookie, the cases fly at you, fast. But I do remember Sheila Carrington.
Carrington was an easy case. A few months after 9/11, she submitted a claim to a charitable fund that compensated people who had lost property when the Twin Towers came down. Carrington claimed her car had been parked near the Towers on 9/11 and was crushed by falling debris. She sought a bit over $9,000 in losses, which the charitable fund promptly began paying, few if any questions asked. An investigator for the fund later took photographs of the allegedly-destroyed car — fully intact and parked near Carrington’s home, well after 9/11. It was an open-and-shut case. Carrington pled guilty, quickly.
At sentencing, I argued for a short prison term but the judge took mercy on Carrington, sparing her prison and sentencing her to probation and restitution. I don’t know exactly why the judge went light on a person who stole money from a 9/11 charitable fund — perhaps because it was Carrington’s first conviction, perhaps because she cried in court, perhaps because the judge (an older man with old-fashioned views on gender, according to people who knew him well) was reluctant to send a woman to prison.
After the judge sentenced Carrington and then praised her generously for being forthcoming about her guilt and purportedly getting her life back on track, I had my first full-on temper tantrum as a prosecutor. When the judge asked if anybody had anything more to say before we adjourned, I hopped up and said something like, “Your Honor, I hate to break up the celebratory mood here, but let’s remember — this defendant stole money from a 9/11 charity. She doesn’t deserve congratulations. That’s as low as it gets.” (The Judge later called my supervisor and complained that I had been impudent; my supervisor, in turn, told me to laugh it off because the judge was full of it and I was right. This is just one reason it was so great to work at the SDNY.)
The Carrington case was a lesson I never forgot. Greed knows no bottom. Anytime there’s a pot of money, somebody will stick a hand in it. You’d think: who would ever steal from a 9/11 charity, of all things? Sheila Carrington, for one. Plus dozens of others prosecuted by my colleagues. Later in my career, I’d prosecute other 9/11 fraudsters, and then over 100 people who stole money intended for victims who lost their homes during Superstorm Sandy.
So, as unthinkable as it may seem that people will seek to profit off the suffering of others in our current Coronavirus crisis, it most certainly will happen. We’ve already seen early rumblings of the most vulgar type of opportunism, in various forms.
Hoarding — not criminal on its own, though despicable — is rampant (though, thankfully, supermarket brawls over toilet paper may be on the decline now that the initial frenzy has passed). Price gouging — drastically increasing prices of essential goods during an emergency — is illegal in approximately 35 states, and widespread. We’ve seen offers of $79 bottles of hand sanitizer, $14 cheddar cheese, $10 rolls of toilet paper, and $6.98 gallons of milk, to name a few examples.
Proceeding up the ladder of disgrace (or would it be down?), old-school charlatan hucksters including Alex Jones shamelessly hawk toothpaste, creams and other common toiletries as magical treatments for Coronavirus. The New York Attorney General has threatened action, but has not filed a lawsuit or criminal charges yet. (Side note: there have been lots of warnings and declarations from the New York Attorney General, but not much action. The AG’s most recent press releases, in order, boast about how the AG “urges,” “warns,” “urges,” “marks ten year anniversary,” “launches hotline,” “calls for,” “orders TV host” (Jones), “urges,” “calls on,” “asks,” “orders,” “implores,” declares “we must preserve,” and “issues alert” — no “charges” or “indicts” or “sues.”)
Apparently seeking to one-up Jones, Televangelist Jim Bakker offered his audience bottles of “Silver Solution” as a potential way to kill the Coronavirus, and the Missouri Attorney General filed suit to stop him (see, New York AG, it can be done). Even an actual snake-oil salesman from the 19th Century would be ashamed to offer this fraudulent garbage to the unwitting masses.
And several members of the United States Senate, from both parties, have come under suspicion for selling stock after receiving non-public Senate briefings and shortly before the dramatic market downturn caused by the Coronavirus crisis.
We will, assuredly, see many more cases of unthinkable greed and opportunism. Working as a prosecutor for fourteen years can make a person cynical, or at least coldly realistic. No matter how much suffering a crisis causes, no matter how many people suffer physically or economically — somebody will always crawl out of the muck to turn a buck.
Lowlife profiteers can and hopefully will eventually face the consequences for their actions — criminally, civilly, or just cosmically. But don’t let those few crooked creatures swamp all of the good that has come out of our collective response to the Coronavirus. The silver lining here has been remarkable. We are seeing so much good, so much heroism and sacrifice from our frontline medical responders, so much collective action and generosity, so much creativity and camaraderie. It’s a small thing, but I’ve noticed a marked increase in head nods, smiles, waves, or just kind looks from people I pass when out for a run or walking around town or at the supermarket. Mass trauma inevitably brings out the crooks, the quacks, the profiteers. But it also has an even more powerful way of bringing out our best.
Stay informed and stay safe,