The Novel of Financial Deception
Enters Its Third Year Online
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Casing Wal-Mart
Miller Risk Advisors

Rigged Chapter 1



Ross M. Miller
Posted June 7, 2004

It all began with what seemed like a perfect moment. The last time I felt this way, I was heading out of town on I-15 and didn’t notice how fast I was going until a dozen troopers stopped me at the state line. When they saw the box with the gold bracelet on the passenger’s seat, the troopers withdrew their weapons, congratulated me, and let me know that breaking double the speed limit was not a good idea regardless.

I managed to keep my guard up for eleven years until one October morning on a hilltop green, miles from the nearest officer of the law. After slamming a forty-foot downhiller into the back of the cup, I stood and looked out over the ten thousand acres that I called home. I turned and looked beyond the seventeenth fairway to the enormous glass cylinder that was now visible through the forest. I could—for the briefest instant—embrace the illusion that I was both happy and in control.

This time nature interrupted.

I heard their honk before I noticed them cloud the horizon. I had come to expect airborne intruders, but nothing like this. It was as if every Canadian goose had received its migration cue simultaneously. They flew directly overhead but high enough that thoughts of Hitchcock arose only on later reflection.

It was minutes before they passed and I felt composed enough to return to my drill. I had just lined up a testy putt that would skirt the fringe alongside the right bunker when I heard a droning fade in from the direction where the honking had faded out.

I initially dismissed this annoyance as a blower clearing the night’s accumulation of leaves from a distant green. (I toyed with banishing the blowers, but I had been conditioned to avoid actions that might be considered micromangement.) Soon the drone had blossomed into a mechanical whir with a familiar beat. I was used to seeing V formations of black helicopters in the distance, only this was a white chopper, unescorted, and headed straight at me. The yellow hexagon betrayed its payload.

It was not Roland’s style to drop in unannounced. With over two hundred patents to his name, Roland Thompson had done more than anyone else to turn the industrial dinosaur formerly known as General Forge and Foundry into the powerful conglomerate now legally recognized by its initials. He rarely just visited and I could only count on seeing him in June when he would arrange a brief layover on his trek up to the compound he maintained a hundred miles due north. Moreover, Roland—who was one of the few to take the company’s admonition to “spend our money like it was your own” to heart—only exercised the option to fly the corporate jets and helicopters at his disposal in a real emergency.

Roland’s chopper hovered over the woods before landing in the center circle of an asphalt basketball court eighty yards downhill from me. The surrounding forest had long ago consumed the concrete landing pads where majors and generals had once touched down. I rarely thought about how the end might come, but when I did it always started something like this.

Roland bounded uphill with his usual swagger and met me a little more than halfway. He filled out his signature bomber jacket and stood tall in his alligator cowboy boots. Reading between the lines of the face that peeked out from under a mop of gray hair, I could still detect shadows of the man who was once presumed dead when his Cessna was reduced to splinters among the snow only to surface a week later in a remote Cascade cabin swapping stories with trappers.

After we shook hands, Roland flipped up his sunglasses and said, “Hey, Doc, good to see you again. My short game can use some work.”

Sure. Right. That’s why you’re here. But rather than say that, I muttered a perfunctory greeting.

As one of GFF’s most senior executives, Roland saw no need to explain his presence. Whatever he packed, I would have to wait until he was ready to draw.

“Get a load of these,” he said. Roland was cradling a virgin sleeve of golf balls in his left hand. I took the sleeve from him and switched into a defensive frame of mind. They seemed like the typical premium golf balls that GFF’s privileged executives (and the pros they played with) used as range balls.

He goaded me, “Open ‘em. Go ahead. Open ‘em.”

I had learned long ago always to do what my boss tells me to do when he is standing directly in front of me. I removed the plastic wrap, tore off the end tab, and dropped the first ball into my hand. It was covered with hexagonal dimples. On the back, where GFF’s hexagon would normally appear, was the distinctive silhouette of an imposing shaved head. It was Mike, the man who had turned Roland’s inventions into big bucks before he outmaneuvered a roster of fifteen contenders (including Roland) to become GFF’s chairman on his forty-third birthday, which was not coincidentally the day after his second divorce became final. Roland was still on his first wife back then.

It seemed like Mike was on everything—magazine covers, television, and even specially commissioned Wheaties boxes. Roland, in contrast, was a more private person and could still go wherever he pleased outside of the company in relative anonymity. To learn anything about Roland one had to wade into the depths of GFF’s proxy statement. In the listing of GFF’s five best-paid executives (all of them fast approaching the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five), Mike came first and Roland came last with three vice chairmen sandwiched between them—if only on paper. 

Roland was at least as important to Mike as any of the vice chairmen: He was both Mike’s confidante and his golf coach. With Mike’s game in rapid decline, Roland’s tutelage was all that saved him from embarrassment on the links. It was a good relationship; Mike got a ton of money and all the glory while Roland got five million a year and easy access to the country clubs that did not hold GFF’s past criminal actions against its management.

Roland, who was beginning to look annoyed because I was staring dumbly at the balls, always came off as a no-nonsense guy who insisted on being called Roland. No one dared refer to him as Rollie or Tommy.

Mike, on the other hand, was a complex man with a raft of names. He was born Michael Patrick Quinn III in the obstetrics ward of the Boston Hospital for Women. Throughout the GFF Empire, everyone called him the Mighty Quinn behind his back and Mike whenever his presence, either real or imagined, was felt. (Those within the company were on an informal first-name basis with each other, so Mike was never called Michael, Trey, Quinn, Mr. Quinn, or—worst of all—Dr. Quinn.) At corporate headquarters, known as “the hive” because its main building comprises sixty-four hexagons joined in a honeycomb pattern, he was occasionally referred to as the Quinn bee when he was traveling abroad. Anti-nuclear protesters pronounced him “Megaton Mike” because the company’s was especially proficient at building systems to deliver nuclear warheads to their intended target. Some people respected Mike while others feared or hated him, but no one—especially not Roland and his other direct reports—liked him.

Confronted with Mike’s nearly spherical avatar, I placed a second ball in my hand and said to Roland, “I see you’ve got Mike’s balls. I hope you aren’t hiding the rest of him in your golf bag.”

“What I’ve come here about may be important enough to tear me away from the hive,” he said, “but it’s not so important that I would involve the man directly. Not yet.” That was the first time I had heard anyone refer to Mike that way.

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. Perhaps I could draw Roland out.

“Anyway,” he continued, “the less Mike deals with Alaska, the better. I’m much happier if he thinks of it as our forty-ninth state rather than as a laboratory nestled in the Adirondacks with a hundred and seventy-five of the world’s smartest misfits on his payroll.”

Roland would, from time to time, assure me that Mike knew essentially nothing about Alaska, which was the only reasonable explanation for why it still existed and I was able to run it—or, more accurately, stand by and watch it run itself—without the hive’s interference.

Alaska was hatched as a military program funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in the late Nixon years. It was written ALASKA—short for the Advanced Laboratory for the Acquisition of Scientific Knowledge and its Amplification—back then. ALASKA’s original mission was to understand why certain people could perform tasks better than others—for example, how some pilots made top gun while others bailed out of flight school on the first day. (As with most military acronyms, ALASKA’s name was intentionally misleading, having little to do with what most people would consider science or knowledge.) This research was seen as a necessary step in the design of smart weapons that would have humanoid capabilities programmed into them. GFF was awarded a no-bid contract to operate ALASKA for the Defense Department.

Roland was fiercely protective of ALASKA and was the godfather to its military parentage even if no one dared call him that to his face. After the Berlin Wall fell, it seemed inevitable that the program would be curtailed for budgetary reasons. The military had lost interest in blue-sky research and so had GFF. Roland, who by that time had left the lab bench to become head of GFF’s Research Laboratory, saved ALASKA by noticing that it had some potentially valuable assets—inventions of no value to our (or any other) military, but with numerous industrial applications. 

Roland drew up a new contract between GFF and DARPA that made ALASKA a subsidiary of GFF and gave it clear title to all its nonmilitary inventions. The licensing fees from the resulting patents made the lab self-sufficient from day one. To further protect the laboratory, Roland demoted all but the initial capital to lower case and built it a new home in the Adirondacks fifty miles upstream. Roland penned Alaska’s new mission statement, which consisted of three simple words: Do good stuff.

Whatever was on Roland’s mind, he was going to play with me first. This was one of several occupational hazards of being a game theorist and a former professional gambler—people always want to play games with you, especially if they think that they have a chance of winning.

Roland took back the golf balls that he had handed me and then retrieved the remainder of the dozen from his bag. He dropped them to the ground, pulled a sixty-degree wedge from his bag, and chipped the balls in rapid succession onto the green in a manner reminiscence of a Bobby Jones training film. From thirty yards out, he holed one and rolled the others to within six feet of the pin.

Roland reached back into his bag and gave me a dozen standard-issue GFF golf balls. He dried off the wedge and presented it to me with these words: “Watch it now—Tiger wants this back.”

I chipped toward the hole with respectable results even if I holed none of them. On our way to retrieve the balls Roland said, “Let me tell you why I’m here having fun with you rather than wasting this glorious Monday morning sitting in on the Session A’s with Mike.”

I had almost forgotten about Session A’s. On the first week of each quarter the heads of GFF’s twenty major businesses report to the hive to go over their financial results with Mike and his staff in an ordeal known as a Session A. In his first Session A as Chairman, Mike got everyone’s attention by saying, “Take him out on the front lawn where everyone can get a good look at him and shoot him” when the head of GFF’s industrial adhesives business unabashedly admitted to missing his numbers.

The culmination of this hell week was the release of GFF’s quarterly results before the stock market opened on Friday morning. GFF prided itself on being among the first companies to report to Wall Street each quarter and for the reliability of its earnings.

I had gone many places with Roland, but never to a Session A. In fact, I had never been in the same room at the same time as the Mighty Quinn. Roland said that I was too valuable for him to take the risk that I might be summarily executed.

“The reason I’m not partaking in the festivities is that in preparing for one of the Session A’s we uncovered some disturbing things.” Roland made solid eye contact with me as he spoke. “As you may have heard, the Mighty Quinn has been on a bit of shopping spree lately. He started out on a roll and nabbed several bargains, like that cable network, and they’re doing nicely. It appears, however, that we may have gotten ahead of ourselves.”

“You don’t say,” I replied. In a company that wanted its job candidates to confess that their greatest personal flaw was working too hard, “getting ahead of ourselves” was the only acceptable spin to put on a major screw-up.

“We dropped a hefty chunk of change on The Lowell Group, a Boston-based investment manager that hit it big in mutual funds. Things seemed fine at first. So what if they were a little light on their numbers in the second quarter—the hive made the usual fuss to give them religion, but we could deal with it. Then, last week, we were going over their third-quarter numbers and Mike didn’t like what he saw. The shortfall was expanding. We had the audit team dig around and they traced the problem to their flagship fund—Lowell Aggressive Growth.”

“Anything special about it?”

“For one thing, its manager, Kenneth Paine. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you?”

“That book of his, Market Myths, is hard to miss,” I said. “He looks disarmingly smug on the cover.”

“Ken may be smug, but at least he’s not arrogant like the others at Lowell. And as famous as Mike is, Ken is David Hasselhoff. I was in Kuala Lumpur last month visiting a fab plant and a street vendor tried to sell me a poster of him.” I wondered whether the poster was of Paine or Hasselhoff, but I let it slide. “The thing is that after thirty-seven straight quarters of beating the market he and his fund started sucking wind. And this comes immediately after we bought those guys.”

“And . . .”

“Mike can’t issue the financials or talk to the Street until he knows what is going on there—the SEC has this thing about full disclosure and they make Mike sign off on every single number. That Sarbanes-Oxley crap that was foisted on us.”

“They make you sign, too?”

“No way,” Roland said, “I get a free ride. Nobody knows what a chief technology officer does, much less cares if he takes a perp walk. But even if we leave prison out of the equation, there’s the matter of perception. That’s what bugs Mike.”

Although it appears nowhere in the company’s hefty business manuals, every GFF manager quickly learns that when it comes to Mike, perception is reality.

Roland brushed an orange maple leaf from his shoulder. “In the eighteen years that Mike’s been Chairman, he’s always reported the numbers on time and he wants this quarter to be no exception. Aside from personal pride—which Mike has in abundance—the market won’t like it if the numbers are late. We could see the stock down several points and each one of those points translates into ten billion dollars of our shareholder’s money. So Mike gave the problem to me and said ‘Fix it. Whatever it takes. Just fix it fast.’ That’s what brings me here today.”

I was prepared for much worse, but I knew to conceal my relief. “So, how can I help?”

“When he was shorter in the tooth, Mike would have hired a bunch of overpaid consultants to map out the alternatives. That’s not possible here. For one thing, consultants got him into this mess. For another, involving outsiders broadcasts the problem. Wall Street never liked this acquisition—they said we had no business treading so close to their turf—and we don’t want to do anything that would give them more ammo.”

“No, we wouldn’t want to do that.”

“And, worst of all, the audit team thinks that someone—maybe the feds, maybe the press—might know more than we do. A lot more. We have surveillance tapes that show guys in suits rummaging through Lowell’s trash.”

“I know how to be discreet. If I went rummaging through someone’s trash, I wouldn’t wear a suit.”

“I hope you won’t have to do that,” Roland said with a hint of a smile. “What we need are smart insiders who can put some fresh eyeballs on this. That’s why I rushed up here to see if you could put together a SWAT team that can parachute into Boston and find out what’s really happening and report back to me by the end of business on Thursday.”

I guessed that he meant “parachute” figuratively. He paused long enough that I found something substantive to say in response.

“I’m glad you thought of me, but no matter how discreet we are, I don’t see how we can poke around a major financial institution and not attract attention.”

Roland gave me a meaningful-to-the-point-of-glaring look and responded emphatically, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m the last one who’d want to see Mike or the audit team traipsing around here, but Alaska’s future may very well be in The Lowell Group’s hands. A Boston mutual-fund manager may seem like small potatoes, but we’ve seen what happens to other companies when a financial scandal runs out of control. No one wants that to happen here.”

“A scandal, Roland? Is that what brought you here?”

“I hope not. You never know. But if one’s brewing, you’re the only one that I feel certain will get to the bottom of things.”

“I take that as a compliment.”

“As well you should,” That said, Roland looked away from me and toward the green as he continued talking. “What’s ironic about all this is that in vetting the purchase of an investment management company, we consciously avoided firms with the slightest taint—legal or ethical. The Lowell Group stood out from the pack as a traditional company that was squeaky-clean. If Mike has to learn about a scandal from someone else, I’m toast and I don’t have to tell you what that means for you. All I can say is that scandal or no scandal the Lowell Aggressive Growth Fund is starting to hemorrhage cash. Withdrawals from all their funds are inching up relative to the competition. The Lowell Group thinks this is our fault, but I don’t buy that for a minute.”

“I wonder what would create that impression.”

Roland didn’t respond to my sarcasm, he challenged me to a second game of closest-to-the-pin instead. This game had virtually the same outcome as the first. He then put the wedge back in his bag and said, “Let’s take a tour of the lodge while I fill you in on the details. I’d like to see what you’ve done with the place.”

Our walk took us by the basketball court where Roland’s chopper sat. We passed several tennis courts and entered the building through the back. The lodge was a meeting and recreation facility with thirty guest rooms. It was as far into Alaska as visitors, including job candidates, were allowed to venture.

“Nice cruelty-free facility you’ve got here, Doc,” Roland said as we entered the main hall, which was devoid of the taxidermy, leather furniture, and antler-based works of art typically found in an Adirondack lodge.

“As cruelty-free as a place that serves the best barbeque in the North Country can be,” I responded.

We sat down on two cruelty-free, but comfortable, chairs and Roland said, “Here’s the deal. We closed the Lowell acquisition back in February and for the rest of the first quarter everything was fine. Ken’s fund was up four percent in a flat market. Not spectacular, but more than enough to keep its five-star rating. Things started to get dicey in the second quarter but at least the overall market was strong. The averages were up six percent while Ken eked out a two percent gain—the first time in over nine years that he didn’t beat them. But that’s only a single quarter and because the five stars are based on a full year’s performance, all’s still copacetic. Well, the third quarter, which ended last week, was terrible. The averages tacked on another six percent and Ken’s down three.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “The hive is abuzz because of a single mediocre quarter followed by a lousy one. Probabilistically, that’s not so bad and no reason to suspect a scandal. Even the best have runs of bad luck.”

“I have a gut feeling that luck isn’t involved. However you slice it—quarters, months, weeks, even days, Ken’s fund consistently lags. We can’t afford to wait this out.”

“Aside from the Mighty Quinn’s nanosecond attention span, what’s the issue here?” I always knew when someone was holding back and Roland knew me well enough to know that I knew. Roland seemed distracted, so I used the extra time to add, “What aren’t you telling me?”

Roland responded in a managerial voice—impersonal and detached—something he rarely did with me. “Well, Doc, we acquired Lowell because they lacked the capital, technology, and management acumen to continue to go it alone. Ken’s fund opened doors for them—a bunch of financial planners came on board because their clients responded to the media attention that Ken and his fund were getting. They even signed some small-to-medium companies up for their 401(k) program, but they simply couldn’t provide the same products and services as their larger competitors. As for the institutional market, especially the pension funds, Lowell just couldn’t get in the door. The guys at our pension fund thought they were a joke.”

I started to say something about the pot calling . . . but caught myself.

Roland leaned closer to me. “We figured that we could do a better job than Lowell of promoting Ken’s fund and then build the company up around it. We weren’t the only ones with this idea. GFF had to outbid the big European banks in order to get Lowell and it’s beginning to look like we overpaid. If something is fundamentally wrong with them, we’re looking at an ocean of red ink and a big hit to our credibility.”

Roland had said a lot, yet had dodged my pointed question. It seemed futile to press him further, so I simply remarked, “Well, no one can say the Mighty Quinn isn’t ambitious. GFF starts out in the financial markets by lending steel mills money so they can afford to buy its open-hearth furnaces and fifty years later it wants to take over the stock market.”

“Ambition aside, I’d like you to look around and tell me what you think. Boston isn’t Vegas, but then as they say, it takes a . . . “

I never thought of myself as a thief—a hustler, maybe—but I caught the gist.

Roland rose up and said, “Take anyone you need with you. Post your expenses directly to my account. I don’t think you could cost more than our consultants if you tried. Your best guys are clever enough that three or four of them should be able to do the work of a whole stable of consultants. There’s that brilliant guy with the webbed feet—”


“Right. Yes. So, that’s what you call him. He should fit right in with The Lowell Group. I’m sure you can manage to drag him and a few of the others away for the week.”

“Anything you say.”

“We’ll start with a breakfast meeting tomorrow at seven-thirty in Lowell’s waterfront boardroom. Alice will take care of your hotel and anything else you need. Only your attendance is required at breakfast, we won’t need the rest of the team until later in the day.”

Then Roland unzipped a side compartment of his golf bag, pulled out a large yellow binder, and said, “Here’s some bedtime reading for you and your team. We pulled this background material together for the Lowell acquisition. It’s sensitive stuff, so I’d like it back at breakfast tomorrow. By the way, have we made it to a thousand pictures yet?”

 “Yes, just last week. We’re already up to a thousand and three.” Some labs measure their success in patents, others in publications. Alaska uses eight-by-ten glossies.

“Good stuff. Speaking of pictures, I’ll arrange to have GFF identification cards issued for everyone in your party. It’s best not to be flashing your Alaska IDs. You can stop at the old lab on your way to Boston and get them made for you. It shouldn’t take long.”

“It’s still there?” I asked with an inflection that would let Roland know that I knew that the Mighty Quinn could disappear a facility many times the size of Alaska. His lawyers and accountants (with the rubber stamp of his hand-picked board of directors) put the best illusionists on the Strip to shame.

“In a manner of speaking.” Roland looked up at the ceiling and said, “That place brings back memories.”

The “old lab” was how Alaskans referred to our new lab’s birthplace on those rare occasions it merits mention. That was where I started working for Roland. He had found me in Vegas, talked me into coming east, and made me his special assistant. In exchange for sitting in on the occasional meeting with him, I got to spend the rest of the time doing research with all of GFF’s formidable resources at my disposal.

Things were going along fine until Mike slashed GFF’s research budget as part of a cost-cutting program designed to keep giving Wall Street the double-digit earnings growth to which it and the company had become addicted. When it looked like the old lab might vanish altogether, Roland put his best people, including three Nobel laureates, into “the lifeboat” before he got kicked upstairs to an office next to Mike’s at the hive. Despite my relative youth and inexperience, Roland put me in charge of Alaska. Roland’s successor to the directorship of the old lab was a CPA and Wharton MBA who cared only about what the lab cost the company and not what it invented, which was the way Mike wanted things.

“I’ve gotta get back to the hive—who knows what Mike will do without me?” Roland said as he led the way to the door.

Once we were outside, I asked, “Do you miss the old lab?”

“It’s hard not to considering that I did my best work there even if it’s no longer the same place. What I miss most is being young. At least as a physicist, I could stay productive into my forties. It must be tough on you mathematicians. By the time you’re twenty-five, it’s all over.”

“Some of us make it to thirty and we can always start something new in our old age.”

“You certainly can, Doc. It’s always great to visit here. See you at breakfast tomorrow.”

Roland walked to the chopper and ducked his head as he climbed aboard. I raced to my car and sped through the forest until nothing came between me and the glass cylinder. Now to deal with the misfits. My misfits.

Copyright 2004 by Ross M. Miller. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to