My Brush with the Mafia

Today, our family business received payment for losses resulting from our relationship with Suprema Cheese, and although I wish the amount of the check had been higher, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing the bad guys lost.

It was early in 2001, and due to another one of those blows that sometime whack a small business owner, I had been secretly learning to be a forensic accountant.  It wasn’t anything I had aspired to, but when money goes missing and the IRS asks you where it is, somebody has to answer.  As a result, collections also came under my jurisdiction.

We were payrolling workers for Suprema Cheese Co., which meant that although they toiled under Suprema’s roof, we wrote paychecks every week for the hours those people worked.  Suprema was first billed monthly, and then, when they began to fall behind in their payments to us, weekly.  The amount they owed ran very quickly into tens of thousands of dollars, and it fell to me to pressure them to pay up.

Knowing that we would likely get NOTHING if I laid off their workforce, I made weekly phone calls to the very smooth CFO of the company.  He was in New Jersey, Italian, and schmoozed with all the charm of a mob boss.

The calls would always go something like this:

“Hi, Pauli.  How are you?”  I would then ask about the well-being of his family and how life in general was treating him.  Eventually I would get down to brass tacks and say, “You know, Pauli, I really don’t want to have to lay off your workers… but I do need to receive a check from you folks.”  He’d always give me a big song and dance about how slow cash flow was and how he really couldn’t say when he could send a check.  I’d listen, sympathize, and then repeat, “Gee, that’s rough, and I know how difficult it is, but you know, Pauli, I really do need that money, and I’d hate to have to lay off your workers… but if I don’t receive a check by Monday for at least $ XXX, I just won’t have any choice.  I really hope you can help me out here.”  That would bring the dance to conclusion, as he’d say he’d try to have something for me by Wednesday, and I’d thank him and say how much I would appreciate that, and repeat that I really didn’t want to have to lay anybody off.  I would then wish him and his family well, hang up the phone, and shout profanities at the top of my lungs.  A week later, the act would replay.

Eventually Suprema hired the workers onto their own payroll.  Because of my weekly schmoozing with Pauli, they only owed us $7,000 at the time, and despite spending around $15,000 on legal representation, we never got another penny.  Other businesses – such as the milk cooperative that supplied Suprema  – did not fare as well, and I like to think that as much as Pauli was an asshole, he appreciated my weekly playing of his game.

Today, 14 years later, I learned that in 2008, Suprema exec’s were found guilty of massive fraud and were sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.

I learned that today because it took another seven years for any reimbursements to be made to Suprema’s creditors, and, no doubt because of the legal costs of prosecution and the fact that much of the $177 million dollars in lender and investor losses was not recovered, our business received a grand total of forty-two U.S. dollars.  That’s a bit short of the $22,000 we were due, but then there’s this:

Pauli did not go to prison.  In August of 2001 it was reported by a Suprema press release that he had died unexpectedly of a heart attack – just after I last spoke with him.  An underling was elevated to Pauli’s vacated position, less than 3 months later the company Controller resigned and blew the whistle on the embezzlement.  It was that underling and one other kingpin – Pauli’s brother-in-law – who were charged and went to prison in 2008.

The poets tell how Poncho fell
And Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold
And so the story ends we’re told

(Pancho and Lefty, lyrics by Kris Kristofferson)

But is that the end of the story?  After considerable online searching, I can find no record of an obituary, nor any account of Pauli’s death other than the one provided by Suprema, and I can’t help imagining that Pauli knew what was coming down, faked his death, and now lives comfortably somewhere in Sicily with a mistress and his share of the millions. What do you think?