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THOMPSON: How a regular meeting with a client turned into an undercover investigation for the FBI

November 15, 2019 - 12:00 PM

This is the first of four excerpts from a manuscript about my undercover work with the F.B.I. and the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York from 1999 to 2002. The efforts of law enforcement and Justice Department professionals - as well as ordinary citizens like me - led to the conviction of members of two mob crime families in a $100-million-a-year money laundering scheme. While some names have been changed, this story is based on actual events and real people.

When I landed at Miami International Airport it was a sauna. Even my tropical-weight wool suit was no match for August’s early morning humidity. But the balmy weather didn’t dampen my spirits as I walked from the arrival gate down the concourse to meet with my new client…Cigarette Racing Team.

Cigarette Racing Team was a high-flying maker of the world’s sexiest, fastest luxury offshore powerboats. Some 70 customers a year paid hefty price tags for these custom-made, ocean-going Boy Toys…most waiting more than a year for delivery.

The company’s worldwide clientele ranged from professional athletes and Hollywood actors to Saudi Princes and drug dealers. They had one thing in common…money…lots of it…and they didn’t mind showing it.

I lived in Naples, FL, a consultant to CEOs and COOs on public relations, advertising and marketing matters across a wide range of industries. After decades of corporate and agency experience, I had the luxury of picking and choosing clients…almost always working on a generous annual retainer.

I arrived in Miami with no luggage…only a briefcase for a day trip…and as I entered the main terminal I spotted Penny Field, the company’s acting-COO, and someone I had known for more than ten years.

She was a brilliant financial executive, and though I wondered what had drawn her a year earlier to the challenge of running Cigarette…a company with a chequered past…I concluded it was money. I was about to find out it was something else.

If you were casting a movie about a soccer mom…Penny would be your choice. She was in her late-30s, five-foot, two-inches tall, heavy set…often referring to herself as a fireplug.

Penny had many talents, but I most admired her ability to keep her cool in situations where other executives might get rattled…show their emotions. I would never play poker with her…she had nerves of steel.

She was smiling as we said hello and hugged. Penny had offered me the job over the phone a few days earlier, so I was unsure why we were meeting in Miami for what she said would be “an hour or so.”

Then, she turned toward two gentlemen standing just behind her and said, “Don, I’d like you to meet Bob and Alan…” They wore dark suits, white button-down shirts and dark - almost colourless - ties. No smiles…faces that looked ready for a driver licence photo.

In an attempt at humour, I shook hands and simply asked, “I.R.S.?”

Bob - lightly touching my arm - guided me away from the foot traffic at the concourse entrance toward a nearby coffee bar - still not smiling, and answered, “No, F.B.I.” I glanced at Penny, and with her smile still in place, she said, “Let’s talk.”

We each grabbed a coffee and Bob suggested a less-busy sit-down…a pub not yet open for business at 9 A.M. Alan flashed his ID at the woman setting up for the day’s business behind the bar before she could say, “We’re not open.”

“We just need some time…alone,” he explained, walking past her to a table with four chairs…not really waiting for her answer on whether it was okay.

We sat down, Penny beside me, with the two agents facing us across the table. Penny - in her no-nonsense style - cut to the chase.

“Don, I’m working with these gentlemen to gather evidence of money laundering against the people who own Cigarette Racing Team…and I hope you might help me.”

Bob and Alan stared at me but said nothing. Penny’s eyebrows were still arched…almost begging a positive response. I looked at Penny for a couple beats, and as I started to answer…unsure exactly what to say…Bob gave me a temporary reprieve.

“Don, let me explain how this would work,” he said. I would soon learn Bob was the Agent in Charge of the F.B.I.’s Miami office…and the fact that he said “would” rather than “might” did not escape me.

I would, Bob explained, while working for Cigarette as its marketing consultant…help surveil the subjects - two mobsters; one from Chicago, IL, the other from Staten Island, NY - take notes about what I saw and heard, and perhaps record their conversations.

It would take a year - perhaps longer - to build an indictment, he said, adding that Penny and other unnamed informants would assist them in gathering evidence. Bob said Penny needed insider help and as someone she knows and trusts…and under the guise of a marketing guru…she could sell the idea of retaining me to the owners without raising suspicions.

Bob said I could keep the monthly retainer that Cigarette Racing Team agreed to pay me…but the F.B.I. would pay nothing for my help…not even expenses. Also, he made clear that the F.B.I. would disavow any relationship with me should things go sideways.

He asked if I understood the proposition…and whether I had any questions. I nodded that I understood…though I wasn’t clear what “sideways” really meant. I asked the only question that came to mind.  As a writer, I asked if I could keep my notes to write something once the government made its case?

Bob glanced toward Alan, then back at me and said, “No, you can’t keep notes or even copies…nothing…but we will return them upon conviction of those we are seeking indictments”

“Can I think it over for a day?” I asked. “It sounds like it might be dangerous.”

Bob said, “Sure…24 hours.” But he would neither confirm nor deny any danger…in fact, he ignored my hint that it might be.

With that, Bob and Alan shook hands with Penny and me…thanked me sincerely in advance for any help and left us sitting at the table.

I shifted in my chair toward Penny, taking her hand - my eyebrows raised - and said the only thing that seemed to make sense: “So, how are Scott and the kids?”

— This is the first of four excerpts from iNFOnews columnist Don Thompson. Future installments will appear here Saturdays. Find his regular column here on Mondays. 

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