Robbing Ourselves Blind 

When a small-time crook gets swift and sure punishment while billionaire extortionists remain free, we’re all robbed.

Lots of people arrived on the scene. An additional bank manager appeared and retrieved the videotape of the tellers’ activities at the time of the robbery. Other staff rallied to comfort the teller who’d received the robbery note. There was a good bit of discussion about whether appropriate bank procedures had been followed, and some concern about the whereabouts of the two male employees who had been in the branch when the robbery occurred. Police from various disciplines arrived — a detective, some forensics specialists with rubber gloves, several uniformed officers. After what seemed to me like a very short time, someone got word that the robber had been apprehended with cash in hand, and had confessed.

The branch manager took down my name and address, “just to be on the safe side,” he said, but explained that it was unlikely I’d be needed as a witness in such a straightforward case. It was a more exciting and harrowing errand than I’d expected when I walked into the bank.

The exact amount the robber took is not likely to be publicized. I’m pretty sure it was under $1,000, and, anyway, all the money was recovered.

If I’ve read the Code of Virginia correctly (www.leg1.state.va.us), the thief, if tried as an adult, could be convicted of grand larceny and serve from one to 20 years in prison for any amount over $200. If he used a gun, he could become part of Project Exile and spend several years in federal prison.

He will most likely be tried and sentenced within weeks or months.

According to 2002 data for felony cases tried in Richmond, more than 62 percent of them were concluded within four months of the arrest, and more than 94 percent were finalized within a year.

I’m very glad they caught the thief. I hope they throw the book at him. I hope his bank-robbing days are over.

At the same time, I can’t help comparing the probable treatment of this small-time crook to the minimal sanctions so far applied to recent big-time corporate wrongdoers. In the ongoing Enron case, a Houston Chronicle article from last Dec. 20 reported that it had taken more than a year just to develop a consolidated complaint against the corporate and financial institutions involved in “a series of fraudulent transactions that ultimately cost shareholders more than $25 billion.” The company’s bankruptcy and its ripple effects also cost thousands of employees their jobs, and thousands of others a diminished or destroyed retirement income.

Andrew Fastow, Enron’s former chief financial officer, was indicted and released after a preliminary court appearance in Houston in October 2002 on a $5 million secured bond. He is scheduled to go on trial in April, while his wife Lea, a former assistant treasurer with Enron, had worked until recently to get a plea bargain that would have resulted in just a five-month prison term. She is scheduled to stand trial in February. One-time Enron Treasurer Ben Glisan pleaded guilty in September to a single charge pertaining to the energy company’s collapse and was sentenced to five years in jail. Glisan became the first high-ranking Enron official to go to jail for his part in the company’s debacle.

Most former Enron executives are still free and more comfortable economically than the workers, retirees and investors they bilked. Former Enron President Kenneth Lay has yet to stand trial. Early this November, nearly two years after the giant energy company he led collapsed, his lawyers were still arguing with federal regulators about whether they should be forced to turn over corporate documents that might incriminate Lay personally. Looking forward, legal sources close to the bankrupt company estimate that Enron will spend over a billion dollars in accounting and legal fees through 2006 to reorganize under bankruptcy protection.

I wish my morning hadn’t been disrupted by a small, local bank robbery, but maybe it was a worthwhile wake-up call. When our legal, financial, and ethical systems are so skewed that a small-time robber gets swift and sure punishment while billionaire extortionists remain free, we’re all robbed. S

Jinny Batterson is a writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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