Pleading Guilty

Scott Turow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Monday, January 23
I. MY ASSIGNMENT
The Management Oversight Committee of our firm, known among the partnership simply as “the Committee,” meets each Monday at 3:00 p.m. Over coffee and chocolate brioche, these three hotshots, the heads of the firm’s litigation, transactional, and regulatory departments, decide what’s what at Gage & Griswell for another week. Not bad guys really, able lawyers, heady business types looking out for the greatest good for the greatest number at G&G, but since I came here eighteen years ago the Committee and their austere powers, freely delegated under the partnership agreement, have tended to scare me silly. I’m forty-nine, a former copper on the street, a big man with a brave front and a good Irish routine, but in the last few years I’ve heard many discouraging words from these three. My points have been cut, my office moved to something smaller, my hours and billing described as far too low. Arriving this afternoon, I steadied myself, as ever, for the worst.
“Mack,” said Martin Gold, our managing partner, “Mack, we need your help. Something serious.” He’s a sizable man, Martin, a wrestler at the U. three decades ago, a middleweight with a chest broad as the map of America. He has a dark, shrewd face, a little like those Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s, and the venerable look of somebody who’s mixed it up with life. He is, no question, the best lawyer I know.
The other two, Carl Pagnucci and Wash Thale, were eating at the walnut conference table, an antique of Continental origin with the big heavy look of a cuckoo clock. Martin invited me to share the brioche, but I took only coffee. With these guys, I needed to be quick.
“This isn’t about you,” said Carl, making a stark appraisal of my apprehensions.
“Who?” I asked.
“Bert,” said Martin.
For going on two weeks, my partner Bert Kamin has not appeared at the office. No mail from him, no calls. In the case of your average baseline human being who has worked at Gage & Griswell during my time, say anyone from Leotis Griswell to the Polish gal who cleans the cans, this would be cause for concern. Not so clearly Bert. Bert is a kind of temperamental adolescent, big and brooding, who enjoys the combat of the courtroom. You need a lawyer who will cross-examine opposing party’s CEO and claw out his intestines in the fashion of certain large cats, Bert’s your guy. On the other hand, if you want someone who will come to work, fill out his time sheets, or treat his secretary as if he recollected that slavery is dead, then you might think about somebody else. After a month or two on trial, Bert is liable to take an absolute powder. Once he turned up at the fantasy camp run by the Trappers, our major league baseball team. Another time he was gambling in Monte Carlo. With his dark moods, scowls, and hallway tantrums, his macho stunts and episodic schedule, Bert has survived at Gage & Griswell largely through the sufferance of Martin, who is a champion of tolerance and seems to enjoy the odd ducks like Bert. Or, for that matter, me.
“Why don’t you talk to those thugs down at the steam bath where he likes to hang out? Maybe they know where he is.” I meant the Russian Bath. Unmarried, Bert is apt to follow the Kindle County sporting teams around the country on weekends, laying heavy bets and passing time in sports bars or places like the Bath where people talk about the players with an intimacy they don’t presume with their relations. “He’ll show up,” I added, “he always does.”
Pagnucci said simply, “Not this time.”
“This is very sensitive,” Wash Thale told me. “Very sensitive.” Wash tends to state the obvious in a grave, portentous manner, the self-commissioned voice of wisdom.
“Take a look.” Martin shot a brown expandable folder across the glimmer of the table. A test, I feared at once, and felt a bolt of anxiety quicken my thorax, but inside all I found were eighteen checks. They were drawn on what we call the 397 Settlement Account, an escrow administered by G&G which contains $288 million scheduled to be paid out shortly to various plaintiffs in settlement of a massive air crash case brought against Trans-National Air. TN, the world’s biggest airline and travel concern, is G&G’s largest client. We stand up for TN in court; we help TN buy and deal and borrow. With its worldwide hotels and resorts, its national catering business, its golf courses, airport parking lots, and rent-a-car subsidiaries, TN lays claim to some part of the time of almost every lawyer around here. We live with the company like family in the same home, tenanted on four floors of the TN Needle, just below the world corporate headquarters.
The checks inside the folder had all been signed by Bert, in his flourishing maniac hand, each one cut to something called Litiplex Ltd., in an amount of several hundred thousand dollars. On the memo lines of the drafts Bert had written “Litigation Support.” Document analyses, computer models, expert witnesses—the engineers run amok in air crash cases.
“What’s Litiplex?” I asked.
Martin, to my amazement, rifled a finger as if I’d said something adroit.
“Not incorporated or authorized to do business in any of the fifty states,” he said. “Not in any state’s Assumed Names registry. Carl checked.”
Nodding, Carl added like an omen, “Myself.”
Carl Pagnucci—born Carlo—is forty-two, the youngest of three, and stingy with words, a lawyer’s lawyer who holds his own speech in the same kind of suspicion with which Woody Hayes viewed the forward pass. He is a pale little guy with a mustache like one of those round brushes that comes with your electric shaver. In his perfect suits, somber and tasteful, with a flash of gold from his cuff links, he reveals nothing.
Assessing the news that Bert, my screwball colleague, had written millions of dollars of checks to a company that didn’t exist, I felt some peculiar impulse to defend him, my own longtime alliance with the wayward.
“Maybe somebody asked him to do it,” I said.
“That’s where we started,” Wash replied. He’d taken his stout figure back to the brioche. This had come up initially, Wash said, when Glyndora Gaines, our staff supervisor in Accounting, noticed these large disbursements with no backup.
“Glyndora’s searched three times for any paper trail,” Wash told me. “Invoices. Sign-off memo from Jake.” Under our procedures, Bert was allowed to write checks on the 397 account only after receiving written approval from Jake Eiger, a former partner in this firm, who is now the General Counsel at TN.
“And?”
“There is none. We’ve even had Glyndora make inquiries upstairs with her counterparts at TN, the folks who handle the accounting on 397. Nothing to alarm them. You understand. ‘We had some stray correspondence for this Litiplex. Blah, blah, blah.’ Martin tried the same approach with one or two of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the hope they knew something we didn’t. There’s nothing,” he said, “not a scrap. Nobody’s ever heard the name.” Wash is more shifty than smart, but looking at him—his liver spots and wattles, his discreet twitches and the little bit of mouse gray hair he insists on pasting across his scalp—I detected the feckless expression he has when he is sincere. “Not to mention,” he added, “the endorsement.”
I’d missed that. Now I took note on the back of each check of the bilingual green block stamp of the International Bank of Finance in Pico Luan. Pico, a tiny Central American nation, a hangnail on the toe of the Yucatan, is a pristine haven of fugitive dollars and absolute bank secrecy. There were no signatures on the checks’ backs, but what I took for the account number was inscribed on each beneath the stamp. A straight deposit.
“We tried calling the bank,” said Martin. “I explained to the General Manager that we were merely trying to confirm that Robert Kamin had rights of deposit and withdrawal on account 476642. I received a very genial lecture on the bank secrecy laws in Pico in reply. Quite a clever fellow, this one. With that beautiful accent. Just the piece of work you’d expect in that business. Like trying to grab hold of smoke. I asked if he was familiar with Mr. Kamin’s name. Not a word I could quote, but I thought he was saying yes. God knows, he didn’t say no.”
“And what’s the total?” I thumbed the checks.
“Over five and a half million,” said Carl, who was always quickest with figures. “Five point six and some change actually.”
With that, we were all briefly silent, awed by the gravity of the number and the daring of the feat. My partners writhed in further anguish, but on closer inspection of myself I found I was vibrating like a bell that had been struck. What a notion! Grabbing all that dough and hieing out for parts unknown. The wealth, the freedom, the chance to start anew! I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked or thrilled.
“Has anybody talked to Jake?” That seemed like the next logical step to me, tell the client they’d been had.
“God, no,” said Wash. “There’s going to be hell to pay with TN. A partner in the firm lies to them, embezzles, steals. That’s just the kind of thing that Krzysinski has been waiting for to leverage Jake. We will be dead. Dead,” he said.
There was a lot that was beyond me going on among the three of them—the Big Three, as they are called behind their backs—but I now thought I could see why I was here. Through most of my career at G&G I have been viewed as Jake Eiger’s proxy. We grew up in the same neighborhood and Jake was also a third or fourth cousin of my former wife. Jake was the person responsible for bringing me to the firm when he left to become Senior Division Counsel of TransNational Air. That is a long tradition at Gage & Griswell. For over four decades now, our former partners have dominated the law department at TN, becoming rich on stock options and remembering their old colleagues with the opportunity for lavish billing. Jake, however, has been under pressure from Tad Krzysinski, TN’s new CEO, to spread TN’s legal business around, and Jake, unsure of his own ground with Krzysinski, has given troubling signs that he will respond. In fact, in my case he seems to have responded some time ago, although I can’t tell you if that’s because I divorced his cousin, used to drink my lunch, or remain afflicted by something you might politely call “malaise.”
“We wanted your advice, Mack, on what we should do,” said Martin. “Before we went any further.” He eyed me levelly beneath his furry brows. Behind him, out the broad windows of the thirty-seventh story of the TN Needle, Kindle County stretched—the shoebox shapes of Center City and, beyond that, upraised brick smokestack arms. On the west bank of the river, suburban wealth spread beneath the canopy of older trees. All of it was forlornly sullied by the dingy light of winter.
“Call the FBI,” I offered. “I’ll give you a name.” You’d expect a former city cop to recommend his own department, but I left some enemies on the Force. Reading my partners’ looks, you could see that I’d missed their mood anyway. Law enforcement was not on the agenda.
Wash finally said it: “Premature.”
I admitted that I didn’t see the alternatives.
“This is a business,” said Carl, a credo from which all further premises devolved. Carl worships what he calls the market with an ardor which in former centuries was reserved for religion. He has a robust securities practice, making the markets work, and a jet-lagged life, zooming back here to Kindle County at least twice a week from D.C., where he heads our Washington office.
“What we were thinking,” said Wash, who laid his elderly hands daintily on the dark table, “some of us, anyway, is what if we could find Bert. Reason with him.” Wash swallowed. “Get him to give the money back.”
I stared.
“Perhaps he’s had second thoughts,” Wash insisted. “Something like this—he’s impulsive. He’s been running now, hiding. He might like another chance.”
“Wash,” I said, “he has five and a half million reasons to say no. And a little problem about going to jail.”
“Not if we don’t tell,” said Wash. He swallowed again. His sallow face was wan with hope above his bow tie.
“You wouldn’t tell TN?”
“If they didn’t ask, no. And why should they? Really, if this works out, what is there to tell them? There was almost a problem? No, no,” said Wash, “I don’t believe that’s required.”
“And what would you do with Bert? Just kiss and make up?”
Pagnucci answered. “It’s a negotiation,” he said simply, a deal maker who believes that willing parties always find a way.
I pondered, slowly recognizing how artfully this could be engineered. The usual false faces of the workplace, only more so. They’d let Bert come back here and say it was all a bad dream. Or withdraw from the practice for a while and pay him—severance, purchase of equity, call it what you’d like. A person feeling either frightened or remorseful might find these offers attractive. But I wasn’t sure Bert would see this as much of a deal. In fact, for three smart guys they seemed to have little idea of what had happened. They’d been flipped the bird and were still acting as if it was sign language for the deaf.
Wash had gotten out his pipe, one of his many props, and was waving it around.
“Either we find some way to solve this problem—privately—or the doors here will be shut in a year. Six months. That’s my firm prediction.” Wash’s sense of peril no doubt was greatest for himself, since he had been the billing partner for TN for nearly three decades, his only client worth mentioning and the linchpin of what would otherwise have been a career as mediocre as mine. He has been an ex officio member of TN’s board for twenty-two years now and is so closely attuned to the vibrations of the company that he can tell you when someone on TN’s “Executive Level,” seven floors above, has broken wind.
“I still don’t understand how you think you’ll find Bert.”
Pagnucci touched the checks. I didn’t understand at first. He was tapping the endorsement.
“Pico?”
“Have you ever been down there?”
I’d first been to Pico when I was assigned to Financial Crimes more than twenty years ago—sky of blue, round and perfect as a cereal bowl above the Mayan Mountains; vast beaches long and lovely as a suntanned flank. Most of the folks around here are down there often. TN was one of the first to despoil the coast, erecting three spectacular resorts. But I hadn’t taken the trip in years. I told Carl that.
“You think that’s where Bert is?”
“That’s where his money is,” Pagnucci said.
“No, sir. That’s where it went. Where it is now is anybody’s guess. The beauty of bank secrecy is that it ends the trail. You can send the money anywhere from Pico. It could be back here, frankly. If it was in the right municipal bonds, he wouldn’t even have to pay taxes.”
“Right,” Pagnucci quickly said. He took this setback, like most things, in silence, but his precise, mannerly good looks clouded with vexation.
“And who’s going to do the looking?” I asked. “I don’t know many private investigators I’d trust with this one.”
“No, no,” said Wash. “No one outside the family. We weren’t thinking of a private investigator.” He was looking somewhat hopefully at me. I actually laughed when I finally got it.
“Wash, I know more about writing traffic tickets than how to find Bert. Call Missing Persons.”
“He trusts you, Mack,” Wash told me. “You’re his friend.”
“Bert has no friends.”
“He’d respect your opinion. Especially about his prospects of escaping without prosecution. Bert’s childish. We all know that. And peculiar. With a familiar face, he’d consider this in a new light.”
Anybody who’s survived for more than two decades in a law firm or a police department knows better than to say no to the boss. Around here it’s team play—yes, sir, and salute smartly. No way I could refuse. But there was a reason I was going to law school at night while I was on the street. I was never one of these lamebrains who thought cop work was glamorous. Kicking doors in, running down dark alleys—that stuff tended to terrify me, especially afterwards when I got to thinking about what I’d done.
“I have a hearing Wednesday,” I said. This took them all back for a moment. No one, apparently, had considered the prospect that I might be working. “Bar Admissions and Discipline still wants to punch Toots Nuccio’s ticket.”
There was a moment’s byplay as Wash proposed alternatives—a continuance, perhaps, or allowing another G&G lawyer to handle the case; there were, after all, 130 attorneys here. Martin, the head of litigation, eventually suggested I find another partner to join me at the hearing, someone who could take over down the road if need be. Even with that settled, I was still resisting.
“Guys, this doesn’t make sense. I’m never going to find Bert. And you’ll only make them angrier at TN once they realize we waited to tell them.”
“Not so,” said Wash. “Not so. We needed time to gather facts so that we could advise them. You’ll prepare a report, Mack,” he said, “something we can hand them. Dictate it as you go along. After all, this is a significant matter. Something that can badly embarrass them, as well as us. They’ll understand. We’ll say you’ll take no more than two weeks.” He looked to Martin and Carl for verification.
I repeated that there was no place to look.
“Why don’t you ask those thugs down at the steam bath where he likes to hang out?” Pagnucci asked. Talking to Carl is often even less satisfying than his silence. He is stubbornly, subtly, but inalterably contrary. Pagnucci regards agreement as a failure of his solemn obligation to exercise critical intelligence. There is always a probing question, a sly jest, a suggested alternative, always a way for him to put an ax to your tree. The guy is more than half a foot shorter than me and makes me feel no bigger than a flea.
“Mack, you would be the savior of this firm,” said Wash. “Imagine if it did work out. Our gratitude would be”—Wash waved—“unspeakable.”
It all looked perfect from their side. I’m a burnt-out case. No big clients. Gun-shy about trials since I stopped drinking. A fucked-up wreck with the chance to secure my position. And all of this coming up at the most opportune time. The firm was in its annual hysteria with the approaching conclusion of our fiscal year on January 31. All the partners were busy choking overdue fees out of our clients and positioning themselves for February 2, a week and a half from now, when the profits would be divided.
I considered Wash, wondering how I ever ended up working for anybody in a bow tie.
“I say the same thing to you I’ve said to Martin and Carl,” Wash told me. “It’s ours, this place, our lives as lawyers are here. What do we lose if we take a couple of weeks trying to save it?”