A Taste of Salameh’s Baloney

Since my last post, things have gotten hotter still, all across the USA. How hot is it? Hot enough in Arizona to dry out a forest of hundred year old desert cactus. Hot enough in Southern California to give a third-degree burn to anyone touching the metal knob on an exterior door. Hot enough in Texas to kill more people there in a week than guns did. And hot enough, here in Washington DC, to spawn a pack of horrendous thunderstorms the day before yesterday, tempests so severe, experiencing one was like living through a forty-minute force-five hurricane. Even today, the City of Trees is still littered everywhere with smashed greenery and the insurance adjusters continue to work sixteen hour shifts. The deer in my back yard are delighted, however – the storms brought down an abundance of their favorite leafy munchies, all of which previously had been far above their reach, demonstrating once more that it truly is an ill wind indeed, that blows no good for anyone.
And speaking of ill winds, they have been blowing for the nation of Lebanon for several decades. And today, my final consultation was a true sirocco, one who may, in fact, have actually done that – which is to say, blow no good for anyone, not even himself. Because late in the afternoon, Gretchen let me know that a certain Riad Salameh, who retired this morning in Lebanon from his thirty-year tenure as the governor of the Lebanon Central Bank, was calling long distance from Beirut on Line Two.

Riad: Hello? Tom Collins?
Tom: Governor Salameh! To what do I owe the honor of this telephone call?
Riad: Oh, no need to call me that. Call me Riad.
Tom: Okay, Riad! What’s up?
Riad: Um… I called for your… advice… which, I understand, is free of charge the first time?
Tom: Absolutely. Best marketing move I ever made. How can I help the people of Lebanon this afternoon – or, I suppose, this evening, where you are?
Riad: The people of Lebanon? Hell, [expletive] them! Unless I’m seriously mistaken, they’re the biggest bunch of profligate, squabbling, bloodthirsty ingrates in the history of humankind! I’m calling to get some free advice for myself!
Tom: No problem – I stand corrected. Shoot.
Riad: Right. So, as you may have heard, I’m being persecuted for thirty years of hard work keeping the country of Lebanon from total economic disintegration. Luckily, we have a mutual… acquaintance… a fellow who goes by the name “Ahmed.”
Tom: Oh, yes, I know him well. How did you meet him?
Riad: Actually, we have had a number of… business encounters… over the years.
Tom: Do tell? Small world, huh?
Riad: So they say. And what’s more, Ahmed says your advice can be… extremely… useful.
Tom: Really? I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear that. There’s just nothing better, in my opinion, than good old fashioned word-of-mouth advertising.
Riad: What convinced me was the story he told about how you got him out of Afghanistan when the Taliban were after him, trying to exact some, shall we say… interest on various loans.
Tom: He told you about that, did he? Quite an adventure for him, I’m sure. So what can I do for you?
Riad: Ah yes, as you may also have heard, there have been some… misunderstandings regarding my financial… programs… at the bank… which have been blown all out of proportion.
Tom: Oh, you mean the policies you had the Lebanon Central Bank follow for thirty years that are now being characterized by financial experts worldwide as the biggest Ponzi scheme in history?
Riad: Um… well… I have heard certain… alarmists… talking like that.
Tom: Or your currency arbitrage strategies that resulted in such massive devaluation of the Lebanese pound that this morning, it opened on international exchanges at a value of seven one-thousandths of a US cent?
Riad: The Weimar Republic inflation was worse: one trillion marks to the dollar! By that standard Lebanon is sixty-five million times better off!
Tom: Spoken like a true master of finance! What about the charges that you embezzled three hundred and thirty million dollars from the bank?
Riad: That’s a lie! It was nowhere near that much!
Tom: And the 0.38 percent vigorish you took for yourself on every financial transaction at the Central Bank of Lebanon?
Riad: That was not vigorish! Such a vulgar word; one that gangsters use! It was baksheesh, a venerable and respected Middle Eastern tradition!
Tom: And the ninety-six million dollars in residential and commercial real estate in Europe and the United States, generating rental income for you and your family?
Riad: Hey, that’s peanuts compared to Jared Kushner’s family, and I don’t see anyone investigating them!
Tom: And the one hundred million dollars laundered through a network of shell corporations in Luxembourg?
Riad: It’s Luxembourg for Christ’s sake! Money laundering is their major industry! Do you Americans blame your Detroit, Michigan for manufacturing automobiles because they pollute the air with carcinogens? Good Lord Almighty, man, I’m under investigation in France, Germany, Belgium and Liechtenstein! Interpol has a red notice out one me! Does it make any sense at all, to lay half a century of mismanagement and corruption, committed by an entire society of irresponsible, lazy, thieving, spendthrift tax dodgers at the feet of one man?
Tom: As far as I can tell, the nation of Lebanon never made any sense at all, and frankly, I don’t get what your problem is, since Lebanese law forbids extradition of Lebanese citizens to any other country and by all accounts, you’re the only Lebanese with any actual wealth left in a nation full of people who don’t have two nickels to rub together.
Riad: There! There! That’s the problem, right there! What if they decide to prosecute me in Lebanon? I need you to tell me, Tom, two things: where can I go that Lebanon, France, Germany, Belgium, Liechtenstein and Interpol can’t get me and how can I move my money to that place before somebody freezes the assets?
Tom: You need a plan.
Riad: Yes, yes, a plan, exactly.
Tom: You want me to construct and provide you with a watertight, sure-fire plan to go on the lam.
Riad: Yes.
Tom: I could do that, but there’s one hitch.
Riad: Hitch?
Tom: Yeah. I’m not sure it would be legal for me to do so.
Riad: Could you… check?
Tom: Exactly what I intend to do; with at least three of the best lawyers I can find. And it’s highly likely that I’m going to have to be very, very, careful about how I do it, too. So it’s definitely going to be expensive.
Riad: How much?
Tom: Um… lemme think here… ah… to get started, I’d say about one hundred thousand dollars, up front, and nonrefundable.
Riad: Oh, is that all? I thought you said it was going to be expensive.
Tom: Now, that’s what I like to hear. Okay, so after I put together a plan of action that is verifiably legal in all respects, provided that’s possible, of course, there will be additional charges to actually formulate the plan.
Riad: Understood. What’s the time frame?
Tom: About a month. Think you can hold off the authorities in Lebanon that long?
Riad: A month? Ha! I could easily bribe them to hold off for a whole year.
Tom: Good. Let’s go with a four week schedule.
Riad: Excellent! This is turning out to be the best free advice I ever got!
Tom: We aim to please. Stay on the line and I’ll transfer you to my private secretary, who will give you the details for wiring that hundred grand to my business account. Then check back with me in a week.
Riad: Okay, until then!
Tom: ‘Bye!