Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Embezzling looks easy and many try it...

By Dick Hirsch

Unlike safecracking, which has traditionally been perceived as an intense and demanding specialty, embezzling has always appeared to be easy.

That’s why a lot of people try it. They find themselves in a position where they handle money or are responsible for bookkeeping, and the temptation becomes too great to resist. Years ago, a skeptical FBI agent once told me he was convinced that every bank teller at one time or another had taken home some samples. But that was small time thievery because the banks were alert for that kind of activity.

While it looks easy, the thievery often is discovered, so it must not be as easy as it appears. On the other hand, authorities have always said many embezzlements go undiscovered while others are detected but never reported to authorities, and the perpetrator not prosecuted for a variety of reasons.

The numbers are getting bigger and embezzling has developed into a quiet, non-violent crime wave, with thefts in six figures becoming common. Years ago, we never heard much about big money embezzlements, but now, if you pay attention, you’ll see a parade of stories in the papers about trusted employees who, over a period of time, treat the boss’s money as if it were their own.

It is an epidemic of embezzling, and, in looking for a cause, you have to look no further than the proximity of casinos and other locations with slot machines. That is my opinion and I found support from a couple of experts.

“If you would have asked me four years ago whether I saw any connection between the increasing number of embezzlements and the increased number of gambling opportunities, I would have said ‘no’,” said District Attorney Frank Clark. “There have always been many causes and I didn’t think that the opening of casinos in the area could be blamed for the increase. But I’ve changed my opinion. I‘ve seen enough cases to say there is a definite connection because at least 50 percent of our embezzlement cases involve people who are addicted to gambling, with the casinos open 24/7. It isn’t just the casinos, either; it’s the slot machines at the race tracks, OTB, and the lottery.”

As his office prosecutes more and more cases, Clark commissioned an in-house survey. The cases involve big numbers; $96,000 here, $289,000 there, $400,000 in another case, $350,000 elsewhere. The list is long and growing longer. And the suspicion among many law enforcement agencies is that there are many cases that haven’t yet been discovered. He said his office is handling at least 15 cases a year of embezzlements over $100,000.

The people being victimized range from churches and charitable agencies to physicians, dentists, law firms, and operators of small businesses.

The embezzlers? They have usually never before been accused of a crime and arrested. And they are mostly female, women working as office managers or bookkeepers who have worked long enough to be placed in a position of trust.

“Gambling is an addiction and with gambling locations open around the clock, these people just cannot control themselves,” Clark said.

Is this sufficient evidence to use in an argument against the construction of another casino by the Seneca Nation in downtown Buffalo? It is for me. Such an operation will make no positive contribution to the city. It will prey on local residents, many of them ill-suited to be losers. It will stifle the development of other businesses. It will attract no tourists, since they will be drawn to Niagara Falls, either Ontario or New York.

Doesn’t logic indicate there are enough nearby gambling locations already? Am I being unfair in connecting casinos and gambling with the surge in embezzlement cases? I wouldn’t have made that claim without the input of District Attorney Clark and Dr. Renee Wert, a psychologist who has long counseled problem gamblers. A few years ago it was chronic sports betting and players who spent grocery and rent money on the lottery, she recalled.

“The casinos have changed the whole dynamics of the problem,” she said. “They provide an exciting atmosphere and the opportunity to gamble around the clock. Women are enticed by the slot machines with their flashing lights and bright images. It’s very seductive.”

When caught, the embezzlers all claim they intended to pay the money back. They had lost, then embezzled in an effort to get even. They should have remembered what most gamblers often forget: the house always wins.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Preparing to write the Aud's obit

By Dick Hirsch

Stop the presses! EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it!!

They used to do that, never in real life, but always in the movies. Rosalind Russell, wearing her new feathered chapeaux, strode breathlessly into the newspaper editorial room---click, click, clicking in her high heels---and announced that her investigation had uncovered some political skullduggery.

No, they don’t do that anymore, even in the movies. But there are times when developments are so unexpected, so dramatic, there are no other words that can adequately convey the shocking developments. So, I repeat:

Stop the presses! EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it!!

Work has begun on the removal of leftover junk leading to the eventual demolition of Memorial Auditorium.

Gee, already? It has only been abandoned, moldering and vacant since 1996. During that time there was considerable sentiment for finding a new use for the building; most of the rhetoric involved the suggested construction of the world’s greatest sporting goods store, but there were others, including an aquarium and a museum. The building, built as a federal project during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is apparently just as sturdy and certainly just as ugly today as it was the day it opened in 1940.

Yes, it has been just sitting there, a forsaken and useless eyesore, the object of scorn for 11 years, but matters of public import usually take time in Buffalo. Decisions aimed in the general direction of progress are seldom reached without exhausting every possible alternative, no matter how remote.

From day one, I was confident they were never going to modify and reuse that building. It was an idea that would merit consideration only in a place like Buffalo, a place where change comes with great difficulty and progress advances slowly. I knew eventually they were going to knock the Aud down. Yet there seemed to be great interest in saving the building in the administration of Mayor Byron Brown, so, as the months wore on, I thought I’d ask around to see whether anyone agreed with me.
I asked a major developer and he was certain it would have to be demolished; although it would be expensive, it would be less costly than trying to revamp and rehabilitate the place. Every other person I asked agreed with that prediction. I could not find a single person who thought the building would eventually be saved and used for the Taj Mahal of sporting goods stores or any other purpose. The only ones who favored saving were the public officials who got their names in the paper, repeatedly explaining how absolutely great it would be, the beginning of a renaissance, if only...

So why did it take 11 years to start clearance and demolition? Aside from finding the money, and frittering away precious time fiddling with Bass Pro, I suggest there was a major sociological factor involved, a factor which has become predominant in Buffalo.

It relates to basic differences in temperament. There are two types of personalities that often engage in debates: the savers and the thrower-outers.

I’ve written about them before, about how, despite their serious philosophical differences, they seem attracted to each other. They tend to intermarry, and thus begin a series of continuing debates over what should and should not be saved.

There are certain times when that saving/disposing discussion transcends the home front and develops into an issue that becomes the subject of public debate. The future of Memorial Auditorium became one of those issues. There were people who just couldn’t stand the thought of spending all that money to raze the building and clear the land in the name of progress. They defined “progress” as saving the building, designing a new facade, and selling bowling balls, shotguns and snowshoes inside.

We all have our memories of the place, of Gorgeous George and Yukon Eric, of the rodeo and the circus, of the Golden Gloves and the Braves, of the hockey Bisons that grew into the Sabres, of Little Three basketball with Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure, of Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. Yes, we all have memories. Mayor Brown thinks the city might collect on those memories by holding an auction sale of some of the moveable mementoes. Ugh. We have wasted too much time already; tear the place down as quickly as possible and let’s move from clinging to the past to planning for the future.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Oh, no, another man in the street....

By Dick Hirsch
I’ve been waiting impatiently for years for the so-called “man in the street” interviews to disappear from newspapers and TV newscasts, but they just won’t fade away. They continue to be a staple for unimaginative editors seeking to create a limp sidelight for some developing story.

The truth is that such interviews rarely, if ever, produce any worthwhile comments. Think about it: have you ever once heard a man (or woman) who was approached at random give a meaningful response to a question? The editors all know what to expect---not much---but they insist on following that approach because, well, it has become an established tradition. I call it a cliché. When you cannot think of a better idea, assign a reporter to leave the office, often accompanied by a photographer, and spend time asking some unsuspecting duffus for an opinion. Among their favorite prospects have always been cab drivers, traffic cops, bartenders and attractive women.

Hey, don’t misunderstand; I respect the views of others and have conducted hundreds of interviews during my career. But all the interviewees either had some prior notice that they were going to be questioned, or else they were involved in some specific story which would form the basis of the questions. I’ve occasionally been asked for advice by business executives and some public officials about how to react when phoned by a reporter seeking an opinion on an issue. I always tell them the same thing: explain that you are in a meeting and will call back. Then take a little time to think about the answer.

I raise the man in the street issue because of the recent introduction of a “new” feature at the Buffalo News, which is still the major window on the world for many people in the area. Daily papers continue to be in a crisis mode, faced with declining circulation and shrinking advertising revenue, and they are seeking imaginative ways to change their content to make themselves more competitive with the Internet and 24/7 cable news.

So what does the News give us as part of their prescription to enhance the paper? Why, golly, it’s a weekly space filler called “Pop Quiz,” which presents the results of man in the street interviews, along with photos of the five interviewees. The first question: ”Have high gas prices changed your driving habits?” For the edition published on Thanksgiving Day, the News asked: “What are you most thankful for this holiday season?” These are really tough questions, designed to engender provocative answers, aren’t they? I wonder who thinks them up.

The only thing that Pop Quiz demonstrates is the accuracy of certain old axioms which provide that “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” or “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What we really are dealing with here is a “new” feature which was introduced in the 1940s and became a staple in countless newspapers for many years, when it was known as “The Inquiring Reporter.” The New York Daily News had such a column, as did the Courier-Express, although in Buffalo it was spelled “Enquiring,” as a kind of tribute to the Buffalo Enquirer, one of the 19th century newspapers that was a Courier-Express ancestor. Those columns appeared not just weekly but every day and their sole purpose was to attract the attention of readers who would check it to see whether any friends or acquaintances were pictured and featured in the paper that day.

The assignment was regarded by most reporters as beneath their professional dignity and qualifications. It was simple work, yet turning out seven columns a week was somewhat daunting. In the early days the editors passed the job around, usually handing it to recent hires. I had the assignment just once, but all my photos either had the top of heads cut off or were out of focus. Strange, isn’t it? I had excellent photo results both before and since that day, but, as a result of my performance I never again had to worry about that assignment.

The Enquiring Reporter eventually became the regular assignment of one reporter. These were usually people who had established a reputation for having difficulty writing an acceptable news story. But that was all long ago. After many years, the feature was dumped. Who could have predicted it would be resurrected?

In the enduring spirit of the man in the street, let’s conclude with a question: Is this “new” feature likely to make the newspaper more appealing?