The rich are suckers, too

larry_salander.gi.top.jpgWould you trust this man? Robert de Niro did. Lawrence Salander, a New York art dealer, was sentenced to six years in prison. by Duff McDonald, contributor


FORTUNE -- Call it an unintended side-benefit of the Great Recession. At least the adjustment period for most Americans to the "new normal" has been periodically and regularly brightened by the realization that rich people -- the ones who were supposed to be in the know and have it all figured out -- are suckers too.

Madoff wasn't the only one. A couple weeks back, the former gallery owner Lawrence "Larry" Salander was sentenced to six years in prison for perpetrating a $120 million fraud on customers that included a veritable who's who of the Upper East Side social set, as well as bold-facers Robert de Niro and John McEnroe.

Not long before, the Feds closed in on money-manager-to-the-stars Ken Starr, charging him with running a $30 million Ponzi scheme on his clients. Similar to Salander, a raft of New York and Hollywood elite -- including the likes of Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Nora Ephron, Al Pacino, Uma Thurman, and Liam Neeson -- had given Starr their assets for safekeeping, and he allegedly spent it instead on his stripper wife. Kudos for the brazenness, Mr. Starr. But how this fact didn't send a warning flare out to the likes of Martha Stewart, who'd already paid a price for her involvement with a Wall Street social climber, is beyond us.

Never mind Marc Dreier, the New York lawyer who allegedly stole $100 million before he was nabbed, looking quite literally like a man on the run, in Toronto in 2009. The sheer boringness of his scheme -- fake promissory notes -- doesn't even chart anymore.

They're just like us

While we, the public, are clearly more interested when a celebrity or other extremely wealthy customer gets scammed, it's in no way because we feel their pain. Indeed, it's just another incarnation of that guilty pleasure of the celebrity tabloids -- the "they're just like us" feature showing breakups and cellulite that's normally airbrushed away. As stupid and feckless about money as we all have been -- witness our ridiculous faith in the stock market or our determined inability to read the fine print in credit-card agreements -- the rich can be equally so.

Still, don't these people have people who are supposed to protect them from this kind of thing? People who know a bogus account statement when they see it? Didn't the stripper wife with expensive tastes raise an eyebrow or two? What ever happened to basic social standards of due diligence etiquette? Has no one got any investment manners anymore?

One reason, almost understandable, is that some of these people are just so rich that the sums are inconsequential, like you or me leaving a $20 bill in our pants pocket without realizing. Remember that secretary at Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500) in London who stole more than $5 million from her bosses that they didn't even notice was gone?

More interesting, though, is the essential cluelessness of a number of the über-wealthy. Maybe they inherited the money. Or maybe they just think that, with life this easy, there's no reason not to let "the help" take complete control of their finances. What else can explain Ellyn Shandler, the daughter of one of Salander's victims, describing her family's loss of paintings by Cezanne and Picasso to the Daily News in this way: "This man broke [our father's] trust, stole his legacy, and broke our hearts." He broke their hearts? For the love of money, woman! Or Alexandra Penney, writing of her Madoff victimhood in the Daily Beast, wondering how she's going to keep her 40 "classic clean white shirts" ironed and ready to help her face each day now that she's been forced to fire the maid?

Money alters reality

Of course, protecting your financial security is not the same thing as thinking that buying a Bavarian castle is a good investment. Nicholas Cage sued his former business manager, Samuel Levin, last fall for $20 million for leading the actor toward "financial ruin," in part through the purchase of not one but three castles. Cage's day-to-day reality must have been so altered by his fame and fortune that he thought life had turned into World of Warcraft. Castles, Nic? Are you kidding? And let's not even get started on Michael Jackson.

Salander, at least, had the gallery front going for him. Give a prestigious New York gallery owner a painting to sell for you, and you can be forgiven for thinking he's not going to sell it without telling you and just keep the money for himself. We're not surprised de Niro got duped, and as for Johnny Mac, we're going to give him a pass on this and say that it could have happened to anyone. We still think he knows of what he speaks, and we await his incisive US Open observations with the same anticipation as always.

Madoff and Starr are birds of a different feather, though. Both capitalized on the age-old technique of finessing the fact that they roped down a few clients of a certain social sphere into ripping off the entire class in one fell swoop. Apparently, just because another member of the famous club uses a money manager is reason enough to use him yourself. It's even better if he's in an unregulated part of the market, so that the "secret" of his awesome capabilities is kept just between you and your friends.

Headlines about both Starr and Madoff tend to refer to the two as "disgraced" former moneymen. It's a peculiar euphemism, that one. The only disgrace that either of these two likely feel is that of getting caught. The bigger disgrace is of those who provided them with the means to make it happen in the first place. To top of page

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