Lately, the news has been littered with story after story about Ponzi schemes. Since the economy hit the skids, the supposed financial wizardry of people like Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford has been washed away and their greed laid bare.
Or as the “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffett, has so aptly stated, "It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked."
Waves of such stories have broken locally as well, uncovering the Nashville area’s own “mini-Madoffs.” The most well known is that of Michael Park, who pleaded guilty to running a Ponzi scheme in February. But just this week, Brentwood-based financial advisor and “life coach” Gordon Grigg was indicted in federal court.
Interestingly, one federal agency charged with investigating and building cases against Park and Grigg has offices a stone’s throw away from where much of the fraud took place. Interesting, that is, unless you’re under investigation.
Nestled in a nondescript office building in Brentwood are the offices of the U.S. Postal Inspectors. Now, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation may get the bigger headlines, this “Silent Service,” as the postal inspectors are known, is right in the thick of rooting out Nashville’s most notorious criminal enterprises.
“If at any point a letter or package sent is used in commission of a crime,” according to Inspector William G. Dorroh, “we have jurisdiction to investigate.”
That doesn’t just apply to parcels sent by the U.S. Postal Service — federal statute gives them jurisdiction to investigate when suspect items are sent via private carriers like FedEx and United Parcel Service. For example, a case investigated by Nashville-based postal inspectors involved the theft of 5,500 cellular/smart phones that were fraudulently diverted to two addresses in New York.
Still, how do postal inspectors come to investigate Ponzi Schemes?
In Ponzi schemes, inspectors say, it is simply because fraudulent invoices, financial statements and other documents were shipped by the U.S. Postal Service to unwitting investors. Postal inspectors, working hand-in-hand with other law enforcement agencies, are charged with reconstructing the scam and putting together the puzzle that eventually may be put before the judicial system.
Most times though, Dorroh said, inspectors begin investigations into financial crimes only after someone — usually a bilked client — blows the whistle. There is no way for them to know that offenses of this nature have taken place until someone steps forward, he said.
Since financial crimes are often perpetrated through the mailing of false documentation, one piece of mail is all it takes for postal inspectors to have jurisdiction to proceed.
Financial crimes and stolen cell phones aren’t the only things on the plate for inspectors. Many other investigations are much more dangerous and deadly.
When <i>The City Paper</i> interviewed inspectors for this article, many of their colleagues were out of the office conducting what they called a “sting delivery.” While reporters were not privy to the type of sting taking place, these PIs also investigate the distribution of narcotics through the mail along with assaults on letter carriers.
On Feb. 29, 2008, a letter carrier was robbed at gunpoint near the West End Terrace Apartments on White Bridge Road. According to inspectors’ reports, the letter carrier was delivering mail near the apartment cluster box when he was approached by a male subject who allegedly brandished a handgun, then took the carrier’s wallet and cell phone before fleeing in a waiting car.
Postal inspectors located the vehicle used in the robbery and tracked down Lisa Aldridge and her boyfriend Tony “Little T” Ridley. Both eventually confessed to taking part in the robbery, and inspectors rounded out their investigation with the arrest of John D. Hopper, who was found guilty by a federal jury on April 10, 2008, of participating in the robbery.
For even more dangerous cases, Postal Inspector Tony Gooden has some pretty high-tech equipment at his disposal. If what Gooden has now was available years ago, an accident at Vanderbilt University might have been avoided.
The campus was a quiet place on May 5, 1982, when a package arrived in the office of Professor Patrick C. Fischer. Fischer was lecturing out of state at the time, so a university secretary opened the package on his behalf. When she opened it, a bomb went off and severely injured her.
The package turned out to be from Ted Kaczynski, who came to be known across the country as the Unabomber.
To prevent future incidents like that, Gooden now works with VU and other institutions like it, educating employees who handle packages on what to watch for. When suspicions do arise, he and other inspectors have the means to test for explosives and bio-hazards.
In the PI arsenal are portable X-ray machines, Geiger counters (to detect radiation), small devices that can detect carbon-monoxide and methane, as well as something called a Smiths Detection HAZMAT ID that can detect and identify thousands of chemicals by their components and brand names.
As a side note, Gooden has a message to those who send Gold Bond Medicated Foot Powder to troops overseas — please reinforce the packaging. He says that too often inspectors are called out to investigate suspicious powders coming from care packages that contain the relief product.
“If it is buzzing, ticking, leaking or has liquids coming from it,” Gooden said, “we will likely be called in to take a look.”
Among the other crimes investigated by postal inspectors are child exploitation, counterfeit stamps, extortion, identity theft, money laundering and mail theft.
If someone puts your name on the many credit card applications that reach mailboxes almost daily and subsequently ruins your credit rating, inspectors will have jurisdiction to go after those criminals, too.
For one of the least discussed branches of law enforcement, the U.S. Postal Inspectors Office’s reach and impact is among the most significant.