I am not charmed by Phil.

RuthAlice Anderson

2 Stars

November 18, 2017

Chasing Phil is the story of the FBI’s first major white-collar undercover investigation. Jack Brennan and J. J. Wedick were two young F.B.I. agents, neither of whom had completed the training in undercover work, but when they followed a tip, met Phil Kitzer, a promoter (conman) who was part of a network of conmen, they felt like they had to go after him right away. So, not really knowing what they were doing, they just did it anyway.

Phil, the man they were investigating was a peripatetic grifter who took them around the globe, meeting with clients, setting up phone banking fronts, and conning people out of millions. His usual grift was to provide fake bank securities that people could use as surety for loans. The mark would pay for their services to help secure a loan, but the poor sap would not get the loan.

He routinely met up with other “promoters” which is what conmen prefer to call themselves, They called themselves The Fraternity. A fraternity of men who shared leads, collaborated on “deals”, and conned each other. No honor among thieves. One of the meetings in the course of this investigation began the most famous undercover operation in F.B.I. history, Abscam.

I struggled with this book. It is well-researched. The author takes care to write with good descriptions and an active prose. It is really not the book that I dislike, it is Phil Kitzer. He is presented as affable, smart, and charming. In the end, the F.B.I. agents cared deeply about his welfare. I get that, they spent nearly a year traversing the globe, chatting in hotel bars with the guy.

But there are two paragraphs in the book that speak to the consequences of Phil’s “deals”. Phil sold phony insurance to people, people abandoned when they needed insurance. He took people’s dreams and pocketed them. This fraternity bought companies with fake certificates, “busted them out”, stripping them of all their assets so folks lost jobs and futures. They conned farmers who lost the family farm, banks, insurance companies, and governments. When a bank collapses, taxpayers foot the bill, so these men grifted off everyone. I can’t find them charming.

So, everything about this book should work. It’s well-written, has an interesting angle, and involves a character perfect for a movie. Not for nothing, Robert Downey, Jr. is supposed to play Phil in the movie based on this book. For me, though, it lacked a moral center. The few paragraphs near the end mentioning the emotional cost of Phil Kitzer and the fraternity’s crimes seem perfunctory, without outrage.

Here’s the thing. White collar crime is perceived as nonviolent, almost charming. It’s a caper. They get light sentences, they get country club prisons, they get movies. This is not the first. But the idea that their crimes are nonviolent is false. We don’t know how many people killed themselves after Enron’s Ken Lay stole their pensions or died of untreated illnesses because they lost their health care. We don’t know how many kids got a poorer education because Phil ripped off their government with phony bonds. These “white-collar” criminals do violence to people’s future. They steal far more than muggers, millions more than muggers, but are treated so lightly because they do with paper and patter, but they wreak far more damage. I just can’t like a book that gives so little attention to the harm done.

I received a copy of Chasing Phil from the publisher through Blogging for Books.