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Writing The Book On 'Con Men'

It has often been said that a crook hasn't made it until his story has been told on 60 Minutes. Now, reports The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith, some of those stories are featured in a new book titled "60 Minutes Classics: Con Men."

On Tuesday morning, Smith talked to 60 Minutes correspondents Mike Wallace and Steve Kroft about it.

The visit included video clips from classic 60 Minutes interviews, with commentary by the correspondents.

It was Morley Safer who originally made the observation about how a crook hasn't made it until his story hit 60 Minutes.

Adds Wallace, "A lot of con men feel, 'Well, I'm now accepted into the fraternity because I've been on 60 Minutes."

It's really one of the hallmarks of the show, though, observes Smith, because over the years, it has become known for that kind of "gotcha" moment, when you see the person's eyes sort of water up a little bit, or freeze completely, and Wallace- or Kroft, or Ed Bradley, or whomever - has just got them cold, with the goods.

"And what a joy it is," Wallace says.

"It is," agrees Kroft. "You know, one of the things about us - and it's one of the greatest compliments ever been paid - is that we always know more. We always know the answers to the questions before we ask them. It's generally true. And I think people always underestimate how much research we do, and how well prepared we are by the time we actually sit down for the interview."

Wallace says he was "totally unprepared back in 1972" when he interviewed Clifford Irving, doing a book on Howard Hughes, who for a long time was THE mystery figure of the 20th century, a very wealthy businessman who became a recluse.

"Hair down to here. Nails out to there, and never, repeat, never talked to anybody," Wallace recalls. "And suddenly along comes this guy, Clifford Irving, who says he has done the story of Howard Hughes, with the cooperation of Howard Hughes. We sat down to do an interview, and he persuaded me. He absolutely persuaded me... He had no contact with him whatsoever, but he brought it off. I absolutely bought it. And it was a huge front-page story in The New York Times and so forth. Finally, somebody had gotten to him."

After the autobiography was proved to be a hoax, Irving was forced to pay back the book advance, was convicted of fraud and served 14 months in a federal prison.

Kroft talks about Kenneth and Sante Kimes, a mother and son grifter team who went around the United States, swindling people out of large amounts of money.

Says Kroft, "They always had some sort of an elaborate story to separate people from their money. And they were arrested, finally, for murdering...Irene Silverman."

Kroft says 60 Minutes "finally managed to get an interview with them after probably a year of negotiations. The son and mother were being held in different facilities and they had a very strange relationship."

Why would people like this sit down and talk to someone like Kroft?

"That's a good question," he replies. "I could never figure it out and neither could their lawyers.

"And when we did the interview, there were three or four different lawyers. They had sets of them, all doing it on contingency, sort of for the publicity."

And the Kimeses ended up being convicted. Mother and son have since been extradited to California to face trial for another murder, for which they could face the death penalty.

As Wallace writes in the book's introduction: "One strange thing about many of these characters is that despite their inventive villainies, there's nothing about them in the flesh that would lead you to believe they would be any more conniving than the clerk who hands you pills at your local pharmacy. The best of them, however, are the entertainers, the con men, the slicksters and storytellers who take perverse professional pride in bilking the unwary. Although it must be said that their unwary 'marks,' their victims, are themselves so greedy that too often they throw caution to the wind, somehow reluctant to doubt the validity of the lures dangled before them."[p. xii]

Other convincing cads featured in "Con Men" are some of the most unforgettable characters ever unmasked on prime-time television, including:

  • Emyr de Hory, a suave art forger who made millions of dollars fabricating paintings by such artists as Picasso, Modigliani, and Matisse. Ironically, de Hory was the subject of a book by Clifford Irving called "Fake." Explaining the public fascination with forgers, Irving said, "All the world loves to see the experts and establishment made a fool of." Elmyr de Hory reportedly committed suicide, although there was speculation that he may have faked his own death.
  • Nick Leeson, a 28-year-old Englishman, who single-handedly brought down one of Britain's most prestigious financial institutions. While working in Singapore for Barings Bank, Leeson racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in trading losses and managed to cover them up. Astoundingly, Leeson's superiors kept advancing him more credit and never questioned his figures, in part because the financial instruments he was trading were so complicated. Leeson served three-and-a-half years for fraud in Singapore. He nearly died from the cancer he was diagnosed with while in jail, his wife divorced him, and he is facing huge debts to creditors of Barings. In 2001, he claimed to have been offered a job doing risk management by a Dutch energy-trading firm.
  • Edward Reiners and John Ruffo, who pulled off a $353 million bank fraud, one of the largest in U.S. history. What was unusual about this particular con was that one of the two men involved might have gotten away with it. Reiners and Ruffo concocted a scheme under which banks lent them money to buy computers. Instead, they put the money in the stock exchange where they expected to make their fortunes. Kroft reported that Reiners was safely behind bars, but that Ruffo was still at large.
  • John Ackah Blay-Miezah, who was named "the Ultimate Con Man" by 60 Minutes. Blay-Miezah claimed to be worth $27 billion, and convinced hundreds of wealthy investors to put up $250 million to help him unlock it, with the promise of vast returns. After being arrested in his native Ghana, Blay-Miezah talked officials there into giving him diplomatic immunity in London, where Ed Bradley visited him, living a life of affluence. Bradley said that of all the con men he had been involved with, Blay-Miezah was "clearly head and shoulders above the rest . . . the best con man I've ever seen in my life."

What ultimately motivates con men to break the law and take advantage of their victims?

"Money, of course, that's obvious," Wallace writes. "But as I think back over the years, I've come to believe that they see themselves as adventurers, smarter than lots of legitimate business types. They're thrill seekers, some of them willing to bet their savvy against considerable odds, knowing that the chances are they'll wind up in the slammer — and many of them do. But then, once inside, most of them make model prisoners, obeying the rules, giving corrections officers little trouble, so that their sentences will be shortened 'for good behavior' and they'll be set free to ply their trade once again. And 60 Minutes will be there, too, ready to expose them." [p. xv]

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