Whatever Happened to Fred Moss?

            We were in one of the conference rooms, the one that looked out over the water towards the airport.  There was a break in the closing—we were waiting for the title guy to get on record with the mortgage—so Scofield the banker and I were sitting around waiting.

“Murck Industries has been a customer of the bank for twenty years,” he said with an air of satisfaction.  I figured that meant it had been handed to him, that he hadn’t gone out and found it on his own, so he wasn’t flattering himself, although I’m not sure he cared.  To him it was all about being part of a fine old institution like Boston Merchants Bank, one that had started by financing the China trade and had survived now for two hundred years.

“Who had it before you?” I asked.  I was interested in financial genealogy.

“Fred Moss,” he said, as if the sanctity of this name entitled him to claim a lineage back to St. Peter.  I knew a little about Moss.  He’d been a star from what I could tell going through old files; he’d brought in a lot of new business, gotten into the option pool, then when the bank’s stock took off in the eighties he’d cashed in.  Made a bundle of money and went out and started his own bank, over in Cambridge.  He was a gentlemen of the old school, and he liked the idea that he’d be on the ground floor, not in a high-rise, looking out over Harvard Square, where people could see him when they passed by.

Scofield could have been his son, what with the club tie and the ruddy face and the herringbone suit and the Roman numeral at the end of his name, but Moss carried himself differently.  The men of his generation—they’d graduated from college before things got crazy in the sixties.  They were more reserved than the young guys who came after them.  They were a little less—exuberant, I’d guess you’d say.  They’d gone straight from prep school to a dorm, then married life without ever having given a thought to social experimentation.  What a younger man might mock or rebel against in our time had been as natural as waking up, as easy as falling out of bed to them.

I knew we had done some work for Moss’s new bank—BayState, they were the first to get fancy with their orthography–but I gathered that it had tailed off.  Every now and then we’d rewrite the papers for one of their loans, but no more; what we got came our way by inertia.

And as I got around town over the first few years of my professional life I learned that other, newer firms—upstarts, my boss John would call them, if he condescended to speak of them at all—were getting the business from BayState.  To be perfectly frank, coarser men, the type who would pound a table in a business meeting, their voices raised to a shout.  That wasn’t John’s style, and it wasn’t the way I was taught.  He told me you should never lose your temper, it wouldn’t reflect well on the client, and it meant that you’d let your emotions overpower your reason.

“Whatever happened to Mr. Moss?” I asked, trying to be sly and Scofield—not the brightest bulb on the scoreboard—letting me get away with it.

“Oh, he’s still active.  He’s sort of the elder statesman of the bank.  His name alone brings in tons of customers.  He took a year off after that big trial.”

“Which one was that?”

“The Scilardi Construction case.  It took a lot out of him.”

I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew that what had been a garden-variety business transaction, the kind that John and Fred had done by the hundreds of over the course of their careers together, had turned sour.  It had been sent to the “workout” department of the bank, where troubled loans were rewritten or collected or liquidated.  Then to everyone’s surprise, it had gone to trial.

“Why was that?” I asked.

“I guess it’s no fun having to testify.  He was supposedly on the stand for two full days.”

“Wow.  That does sound tough.”

Scofield looked at me as if I were a simpleton.  “That’s why we have lawyers.  Or why we’re supposed to have lawyers.”

There was an edge in his tone, as if I were somehow implicated in whatever Moss had had to endure.  “Did we represent the bank?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Some guy named Bart.  I guess you were a smaller firm back then, didn’t have that many horses.  The way I heard it, he was known to be a tough guy, but I guess he didn’t come off that way when he represented Fred.”

“Oh.”  The fellow he was talking about had left shortly after I arrived.  He looked like he had street smarts, which is a charitable way of saying he didn’t seem to have a whole lot of the other kind.  “So what happened?”

“Well, the bank probably should have settled it, discretion’s the better part of valor and all that.  But I don’t know, John had taken a dislike to this guy Scilardi and sort of egged Fred on.  Told him his bank was brand new, he shouldn’t get reputation as somebody who would settle.  Pretty soon other borrowers would hear about it and would try to walk all over him.”

I could just hear John saying that.  He was a beady-eyed little guy, probably got pushed around a lot when he was a kid and decided he’d take it out on the world when he became a lawyer.

“And it backfired?”

“They use it as a case study for the new recruits in credit.  You look at how much you could get if you stretched out the term of the loan in exchange for some new collateral.   You look at the liquidation value of the assets at each decision point—do you let the guy hang on or do you pull the plug?”

That was Scofield, mixing his metaphors and not giving a shit.  Probably skated through four years as a legacy, then got a job through his dad’s connections.  I was guessing, and maybe I resented the way he seemed to be blaming me for the downfall of his mentor, but I suspected I was right.

“Anyway, you could see from the reports they give you that a little forbearance would have gone a long way,” he continued.  “I don’t know if things were slow around here or what, but John persuaded Fred to sue the guy.  I’m sure it helped your bottom line that year.”

I felt a little disloyal listening to this without objection, and a little nervous too.  John was out of the office, but one of his first lieutenants—the lawyers ten years or so ahead of me—could have heard us with the door open; there was an office on either side, plus a copy machine right across the hall.

“Well, you can still settle once you start a lawsuit.  Ultimately it’s up to the client . . .”

“Fred thought John was Oliver Wendell Holmes or something.  He’d never been through a tough case, he’d always prided himself on choosing his borrowers carefully, and he’d succeeded.  He figured John knew what he was talking about—which he didn’t.”

I got up and went outside to ask my secretary if the fellow had called from the registry.  She said no, and I stepped back in, this time closing the door behind me.

I sat down again and tried to think of something to do to distract Scofield, but he was off again.  Apparently animus against lawyers flows in a vein that, once tapped, bleeds profusely.

“Anyway, there were some incriminating comments in the bank’s files about Scilardi.  Somebody at one point had commented that he was a rough Italian, it wasn’t clear how he maintained his profit margins.  In addition to his construction company he had a business that made wallets—a lot of low-wage workers out in Worcester.  And then he went out and bought a racehorse that he kept down in Kentucky.  Nothing really offensive, you know, but there was a suggestion that everything wasn’t on the up-and-up.  And Fred had written in the margin ‘Money launder?  Org crime?’”

I let out a little involuntary snort.  You wouldn’t expect men like Fred and John to commit something like that to paper, although it was certainly something you might hear behind closed elevator doors.  Maybe Moss thought his telegraphic style was enough to shield him from harm.

“So what happened?”

“Well, Scilardi’s lawyer was a real s.o.b.  He made a lowball offer and let it just hang out there.  At John’s recommendation, Fred didn’t even respond.  They were going to teach the bastard a lesson.”

“How much was at stake?”

“That’s the sad part.  With interest, around a million dollars.  They could have written it off and shareholders wouldn’t have even noticed.  But they were gonna win, by God!”

I didn’t want to hear what I knew came next, but I settled in for the ride, the way you do with a roller coaster making its way up the incline.

“Who went first?”

“The bank.  They put the note into evidence, they thought it would be like shooting fish in a barrel.  Without any water in it.”

“That didn’t take long, right?”

“Less than half the first day.  Then the defendant got his chance.”

“And how did that go?”

“You ever been to one of those festivals in the North End?  Where they walk St. Rocco through the streets and everybody sticks a dollar bill on him and hopes their dying Aunt Theresa will be cured of cancer?”

“Yes, I was over there for dinner one time while one was going on.”

“Well, it was like that.  Everybody and his brother and his dog got up and testified about what a great guy Gennaro Scilardi was, how he never did anybody any harm.”

“And what did our side do?”

“Well, this guy Bart’s gets up every now and then and complains, how much more do we have to listen to, you know?  But the judge says ‘Let it all in.’”

“But eventually . . .”

“They called Fred as a witness.”

“Why?”

“Beats the hell out of me.  He brought the business in, but anybody could have responded.  Ask your guy Bart, wherever he is today.”

“Doesn’t sound good.”

“It wasn’t.  Scilardi’s lawyer dragged him through the mud and back, then stomped on him.  He said ‘Is this your note here?’  Moss admitted it was his handwriting.  The lawyer said “It looks like it says “Money laundering, organized crime.”  Is that what you thought of Mr. Scilardi, that he was a member of La Cosa Nostra?’”

“Did Bart object?”

“I don’t know.  I guess it was a business record, they couldn’t keep it out.  That’s why they teach us now to be very careful what you write for the file.”

I could imagine how John took all this.  His old friend and good client, being grilled like a hot dog.  His half-assed litigator not doing such a great job, but probably as good as anybody could under the circumstances.  Him seething each night as he got reports from the front.

“So–the upshot?”

“By the end Scilardi’s lawyer had reduced Fred to a wet dishrag.  He admitted that he had no basis for believing Scilardi was involved in organized crime.  He tried to salvage the money laundering comment, saying he didn’t know how about the other businesses, but it was too late.”

“Too late why?”

“The jury—this was before banks got people to waive their right to a jury trial—three were old guys from the North End.  The kind of guys who hang around the courthouse, and actually enjoy being called for jury duty.  Italians, a chip on their shoulder.  They went to work on the others, about how unfair it was, couldn’t you see the guy was a family man, all the good he did for the community, his church.”

I didn’t say anything, and neither did Scofield for awhile.  From all I’d ever heard Fred was a fine and decent man, and his whole career, an unbroken string of successes, had come down to something he’d scribbled in the margin of what the bankers back then called “dope,” their impressions of the character of a customer from the regular visits they were supposed to make, to protect the bank and its depositors and shareholders.  He was doing his duty as the senior officer reviewing the reports of one of his men in the field, and he’d crossed a line he probably didn’t even know was there, like a soldier wandering into enemy territory in the dark.

“You know how it ended, I assume,” Scofield continued after an uncharacteristic moment of reflection.  “Million dollar verdict against what was a little start-up bank, a gentlemen’s club for Fred and his friends going all the way back to prep school—boyhood, even.”

“I don’t suppose insurance covered it?”

“No, it wasn’t that kind of claim.”  He exhaled a little sigh of wonder; I figured he was thinking of the kind of trouble he himself could get into, him with his rather less circumspect manners than Fred Moss.  Then he continued.  “The bank appealed, of course.  They, uh, brought in a bigger firm to handle it, and the verdict was overturned.”

“They all were, or pretty much all of them back in the days when people suddenly started suing their banks,” I added.

“Right,” Scofield said.  “’Stop me before I borrow again,’ or something like that.  Never made much sense.  But Fred had been dragged through the mud, and that’s when he went into semi-retirement.  He brought in somebody from one of the big banks in Boston to run things, and he stepped back to a sort of . . . ceremonial role.  They offered Scilardi $300,000 to settle in order to avoid another trial, and they took it.  I’m sure his lawyer had had enough—a hundred grand was a good payday to him, and probably about what his two years on the case was worth.”  He said this last part with a sneer.

We’d been looking out the window all that time and so were surprised when a voice boomed out “Scofield!”  It was John at the door, playing the role of the hale-fellow-well-met to the younger banker who was technically his client, even though the two decades that separated them in age meant this was an institutional formality, a vestige of a relationship that had started with John’s father.  “How are you?” John continued as he strode across the room.  Scofield stood up and the two shook hands.

“Everything in order?” John asked me after the two had exchanged pleasantries.

“We’re just waiting to hear that they’re on record,” I said.

“It’s gone very smoothly,” Scofield said.

“Good, good,” John said.  “Well, I’ll leave you two young Turks to the battle.  Good to see you, Scofield.  We should get a lunch on the calendar once you two have wrapped this thing up.”

“Sure, John.  That would be good.”

“I’ll have my girl call your girl.”

And with that John turned and with a “Nice to see you,” left us alone again.

Scofield gave me a look and a smile.  “A gentleman of the old school, huh?”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Ice Cubes for the Hell Ship and Other Legal Fictions.”

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