Naturally Grifted – The ‘Long Con’?

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The Sault is still buzzing about the Algoma Public Health fiasco, the demise of Dr. Kim Barker, and the dazzling display of deception carried out by convicted fraudster Shaun Rootenberg, who spent six months as Chief Financial Officer at APH, posing as Shaun Rothberg

Local media luminaries have piped in on the scandal, local residents are speaking out on public forums, audits and investigations are underway, with results to follow. But one thing at least, is abundantly clear: people in this town are getting good and fed up with people blowing in from the ‘Big Smoke’, and blowing smoke up our butts. Does the name Philip Garforth ring any bells?

And the damage Rootenberg caused doesn’t end with Algoma Public Health. In recent days, at least two major projects, with huge economic impacts for our community, got tangled up in Rootenberg, and are now dead in the water. The Gateway Development, and a medical marijuana grow-op were on our horizon, but the major players have walked away.

Such a large swath of damage, over a single act of deception. What was Rootenberg thinking? What was he trying to accomplish? What would it have meant for the Sault, if he had been allowed to continue?

To explore the possibilities, I need to side-step a bit, and employ a little creative writing. I need to introduce you to a concept called the ‘long con’. If you are an accomplished con-artist, or someone who has watched all six seasons of the show ‘Lost’, you can skip on down past this next bit.

The Long Con

A man with a troubled past takes a cleaning job at a strip mall. He used to be a highly paid executive, but since his release from prison, menial labor was all he could get, and only with the help of his parole officer. He spends his days sweeping up cigarette butts, changing light bulbs, trimming hedges, quietly smoldering inside as he watches the business world, the place where he once excelled, carry on without him. He decides that this new reality will not be his fate.

So, he starts paying closer attention to activity at the mall, and eventually gravitates towards a small jewelry shop. It is a mom-and-pop operation started in the 1970’s, still being run by the original owner, now an elderly widower, with a few staff to covering evenings and weekends.

After a few weeks of close scrutiny, the con realizes a few key points. The shop keeps a large inventory of merchandise on hand, and does some brisk business. But what intrigues him most, is the fact that the old man never seems to leave the shop with a deposit bag. The old guy is old-school, and probably keeps everything in a safe. As for the store itself, it has a modern alarm system, with closed-circuit cameras, and motion-detectors. Getting to that safe, to see if his hunch was right, seems out of reach.

But there is one flaw in the old man’s armor. The doors to the shop have aging lock systems on them that could be easily tampered with. Was this one thing enough for him to make a move? After a couple of days of mulling it over, our con has a plan

On a night when one of the part-time staff was scheduled to close up the jewelry store, our villain makes his move. While wandering around doing his normal duties, he rigs the lock on the back door of the shop. Then he goes home, and waits for nightfall.

The news stories the next day show video footage of a masked man entering the shop, smashing glass display cases, snatching gold chains and rings, stuffing them into a bag, and fleeing the store in under a minute. Local police report that the thief gained entrance through an unlocked rear entrance and was gone before officers could respond. The total value of the robbery is estimated at $10,000. No suspects have been identified, and the investigation is ongoing.

If the story ended here, this would be just a ‘straight con’, a simple heist. What happens next, turns it into what is called a ‘long con’.

A couple of days after the robbery, our con returns to work as usual. He does his normal routine for a few hours, then marches right into the jewelry shop, and places a bag on the counter in front of the elderly shop owner.

“I think this might belong to you,” he says, opening the bag to reveal the golden contents inside.

“My goodness, where did you find this?” the old guys asks.

“It was in one of the trash cans out back. I was emptying it into the dumpster, and something heavy thumped against the side, so I took a closer look, and found this.”

“Why would someone take all this, just to leave it in the trash?”

“Well, maybe he got spooked and dumped it, meaning to come back for it. And with the police hanging around, he probably didn’t get a chance, or…”

“Or what?” the old man asked.

“Or maybe he was worried that someone might recognize him, without a mask on.”

“It’s funny you should mention that. The police were asking me about the fellow I had working that night. Thought  he might have had something to do with this. They figure he did it himself, or left the door unlocked for somebody. Either way, I had to let him go. It’s a real shame, he was a nice kid.”

“Sorry to hear that. Anyway, I should be getting back to work, so…”

“Hold up a minute. Please don’t take it personal, but I just have to ask.. why did you return these things to me? You could have sold it all, and kept the money for yourself.”

“Well, sir, the truth is, I’ve had some trouble in the past. Trying to make a clean start. Keeping your property just didn’t sit right with me.”

The old man nodded, and started to turn, then paused. “You got any business experience?”

“Sure, plenty, but bad business is what landed me in jail.”

“Well, as it turns out, I have an opening just come up. It doesn’t pay a whole lot more than minimum wage, but it would be a step up from where you are now.”

“I’m flattered, sir, but with all due respect, you barely know me. You really going to offer me a job here?”

“Well, what did you get in trouble for, exactly?”

“Writing bad cheques.”

“Then we’re in luck, because we don’t write checks, and we no longer take them, either.”

“You serious about all this?”

“As a heart-attack. Every man deserves a second chance at life, and you came in here and showed me everything I need to see. You brought me back this merchandise, and were honest with me about your history. So yeah, I’m good to go, if you are.”

So, our con starts working at the jewelry shop. He does a stellar job, generates great sales figures, and gradually gains the complete confidence of the shop owner.

A few months later, local news covers another story about this jewelry store. The old man returned to his store one morning, to find his safe completely cleaned out, and most of his inventory gone. All told, just under a million dollars in cash and merchandise went missing, along with the man with the troubled past. Police had no leads on his whereabouts, but suspect he is either living under an assumed identity, or gone to Mexico. Their investigation continues. The elderly man is now facing bankruptcy.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the ‘long con’.

Thus, the moral of the story. Can you ever really trust a con man again? How do you know they have genuinely changed their ways? Are you going to put someone like that in a position of trust, just so they can verify what you would like to believe about them? How much are you willing to risk, to find out?

This takes us back full circle to Shaun Rootenberg, and the Algoma Public Health Unit. You see, they never got the chance to ask themselves these questions, because Shaun Rootenberg, with the assistance of his consultant friend Ron Hulse, changed his name to Shaun Rothberg, to avoid that very scrutiny.

But what was Shaun Rootenberg attempting to accomplish, exactly? Was it a straight con, or a long con? In an interview with David Helwig of Sootoday.com, Ron Hulse spoke passionately about Mr. Rootenberg’s desire to live a ‘positive, reformed life’. How you accomplish such a thing while hiding your identity and living under false pretenses is a mystery to me, but let’s take that on face value, and have a closer look.

If Mr. Rootenberg was just trying to prove himself as trustworthy, re-establish his credibility as a good executive and provide for his family, as Mr. Hulse alleges, then what he did at APH should be just a straight con, right? Get in, do a good job for six months, get your name legally changed, and move on with your life. The world would have opened right up for Mr. Rootenberg, and Ron Hulse could be lining him up for another position with his consulting firm, Mindspan Recruiting, Inc. No one would be the wiser, and it would have prevented Mr. Rootenberg from the sad fate of ‘flipping burgers his whole life.”

This story doesn’t have a happy ending. Mr. Rootenberg, for reasons only he could explain, if he was willing to tell his side of the story, took things further – a lot further. Instead of cashing-in while he was well up on the ‘game’, he kept his chips in the middle, and went for a potentially much larger jackpot. (Mr. Rootenberg was a pro poker player prior to his run-in with the law, so this analogy is apt.)

Instead of waiting until his name was legally changed, so he could put some distance between his deception at APH and his future, Mr. Rootenberg started working on much more lucrative projects that could have put him somewhere in the middle of many millions of dollars. This is where the potential for the ‘long con’ becomes a distinct reality, and quite frankly, more probable.

Mr. Rootenberg, along with Dr. Kim Barker, became involved with Amit Sofer, the developer who is currently turning the old hospital complex into condos. They were working on a project to build a licensed marijuana grow-op here in the Sault that could have resulted in some 100 jobs and untold revenue for the city. We can only speculate on what kind of money could be made from such an operation but it is safe to assume we are talking about millions of dollars in revenue

It is unclear what role Mr. Rootenberg intended to play in this project but what is clear is that his involvement contributed to the whole thing project going down the drain. Mr Sofer is a respected businessman, and although he cited government red-tape as his major reason for withdrawing from the project, it is reasonable to suggest that the scandal swirling around Mr. Rootenberg and Dr. Barker had a part to play in his decision.

But the damage isn’t limited to the marijuana grow-op alone. Mr. Rootenberg also got himself involved in the Gateway Development project while still waiting for his name to legally change. This time he tangled another respected businessman, Paolo Ravazzi, into the mix. Mr Ravazzi, from the North America Development Group, was interested in developing the land down by the casino that has sat vacant for decades now.

At some point, Mr. Rootenberg, Mr. Ravazzi, and another fellow, Henry Cole, were present at City Hall together as proponents of the Canal Village Development Project. Once again, it is unclear what role Mr. Rootenberg would have played in such a project, but it is safe to say that it would have involved millions of dollars. Further to that, Frank Shunock became involved, expressing an interest in relocating the local casino into the project. As we all know, casinos involve many millions of dollars in revenue. Even the local YMCA was considering a move down into the site, which again, would have involved millions of dollars.

But let’s backtrack for a minute, and talk about Henry Cole. Mr. Cole, according to the Financial Post website, was a financial adviser for RBC Dominion Securities, and was convicted of fraud, and sentenced to two and a half years of prison in 2012! Much like Mr Rootenberg, Henry Cole committed fraud to the tune of a couple of million dollars, but unlike Mr. Rootenberg, he had a lifetime ban placed on him from working in the finance industry.

So, how the heck did Mr. Cole get involved with this project? What role could he have possibly played? Even with good behavior, he would have just barely been released from prison, in time to show up for the meeting at City Hall. How did he get connected to Mr. Ravazzi, and what was his connection to Mr. Rootenberg?

Henry Cole completely disappeared from the radar, when the bombshell dropped down at City Hall. Someone finally discovered that Shaun Rothberg was actually Shaun Rootenberg, and this news got out into the media. So, who is the unsung hero down at City Hall? Who finally shined a light on Mr. Rootenberg? Was it Nuala Kenny, the City Solicitor? Or was it Joe Fratesi, the City’s CAO? To date, it is not clear who triggered the alarm, but the truth was finally out, and the fallout began.

In the end, Mr. Ravazzi is no longer interested in the Canal Village Development. Mr. Sofer is no longer interested in building a marijuana grow-op in the Sault. Dr. Barker’s career has been severely damaged, and her job at APH gone. Mr. Rootenberg is back to the drawing board, with his real name directly connected to his alias of Shaun Rothberg. All this damage done, because one man decided to hide his identity and didn’t quit, while he was ahead.

And to think, there are still some people in this town having a hard time understanding what all the hoopla is about. After all, Mr. Rothberg appears to have done a stellar job at APH, and chances are, no money will be found missing, when all this smoke clears. Well, if the ‘long con’ was what Mr. Rootenberg was really working on, I can almost guarantee that not a single dime will be found out of place, when the audits are complete.

It should be glaringly obvious, at the end of the day, that Mr. Rootenberg wasn’t simply interested in proving himself a capable employee, and securing a working future for himself and his family. He was actively moving toward bigger and better things, potentially far more lucrative than the $4,000 a week he was earning while pretending to be someone else. And he dragged a lot of other people along with him, a whole community for that matter, and took them all for the ride, that ended in a sudden crash down at City Hall. A lot of people have paid a heavy price, for this ‘simple’ deception.

How can you even begin to put a dollar value on this much damage? What can we do, the average citizens of this community, to prevent something like this from ever happening again? Do we have any real power, or do we need to continue to rely upon a system that is clearly flawed, if not completely broken, to protect our interests?

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