By John Kelly
There are at least two classes of people who harbor contempt for money. One is the very rich, the other the very poor. But both classes ignore the reality of the call of money at their peril. In the modern world, the possession, or the lack, of money has become too much of a yardstick for what we call success.
Of course, money is no test of real worth or value. Money is simply a neutral value of exchange, independent of vendor and buyer. It has no say in how it is used or abused.
It may arrive or depart in brown envelopes from dark corners. Like water, it will always find its own course. It will be finally absorbed into its own ocean of anonymity, though lives may prosper or wither in the course of its descent.
One night in the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street, then the real hub of Dublin, a young married father booked a room. His home was in the wealthy, leafy suburb of Foxrock, only a few miles away. He drove an expensive car and had a prestigious job in a semi-state company.
All who knew him thought he was on the up and up. Like an astronaut, he was going places where none had gone before.
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What’s more, he had emerged from a background where few had any real money to speak about. His father, a decent skin, had never made much in the course of a variety of occupations that paid just about enough to keep his house, his wife and their only child barely on the right side of the poverty trap.
The boy went to Synge Street CBS, then one of the best in Dublin, a school that relentlessly encouraged the pursuit of success through merit and application. He obtained scholarships. He was sharp, a good footballer and a good boxer.
When he left university, courtesy of yet another scholarship, and joined the successful semi-State company, his future seemed fully assured.
And when he married his lovely wife his hardworking parents were more than proud. He had done everything a good son could possibly have done. They thought their lives had been well used.
Ten years later, the man’s father, a small, stocky man with eyes glinting from the pain of rheumatism and narrowing arteries, said simply: “The only thing I’m happy about is that his mother is dead and buried. She will never have to see this terrible day.”
It was in the afternoon, about 3 p.m. His father was seated in the small living room of the terraced house in Kimmage, the home he had lived in for all of his life. The wedding picture of his son and daughter-in-law gazed reproachfully from the peeling wallpaper.
The night before, his son, the pride of his life, had rented a room in the Gresham, a place the old man had never entered. It was a lonely room. When you are on business, there are few places that are as lonely as a hotel room in the wee hours of the morning.
All that matters is what is going to happen next, how you are going to succeed or fail in next few hours. Yesterday and today are just lost commodities beyond the sell-by date.
Alas, for that young married man, so full of life and potential, so laden with the pride of his old, hardworking parents, there would be no tomorrow.
Earlier that day, he had been typically circumspect. He had purchased a new pair of underpants and a new vest. As he lay in the hotel room that night he had rung room service to buy a bottle of vintage Dom Perignon champagne. He sipped the champagne as he lay on the bed, washing down the sleeping pills.
“He died in style,” a policeman said. “He knew how to live and I suppose he knew how to die as well.”
It was the end of what had become known as the Erin Foods scam, a fraud that had made headlines for weeks before the man, a dealer who had stashed almost _1 million away with his accomplice through fraudulent deals they had carried out in Hong Kong.
The details, complicated as they were, do not really matter. The memory that remains is that of the pain felt by that old man as he cried in the decrepit living room of a poor old house in Kimmage.
Money can drive people to strange and tragic ends.
What brings the Erin Food debacle to mind is the apparent similarity between it and the AIB disaster in Baltimore. It was not just money that drove the young Erin Foods dealer to such a terrible end. It was his burning ambition, one shared by his partner, who later served a reasonably short prison sentence, to break all targets in selling Erin Foods products on the Chinese market. To achieve this, they falsified invoices and invented bogus accounts.
The similarities with the AIB Allfirst case, as the facts unravel, are uncanny. John Rusnak, the dealer at the center of that investigation, seems to have been under considerable pressure to deliver ever-bigger profits, just as were the two Erin Foods international product dealers.
All that is required to complete the deadly equation is the massive personal ambition to be even more successful with every further deal. Bonuses and promotions follow.
But as with Nick Leeson, the dealer who singlehandedly brought down Berings Bank, the demands become too great.
Currency markets are treacherous seas, even for the most experienced of fiscal navigators. Leeson exceeded his limits and had to throw good money after bad to shore up losses he did not want to admit he had made.
For AIB, the loss of the $750 million is nothing compared to the damage to the bank’s reputation.
What is really surprising is that Allfirst or AIB executives did not detect that something was terribly wrong before they did.
They would have done well to have paid heed to the Erin Foods debacle so many years before. After all, money is only a product as well, just like dried soup or dehydrated vegetables. But it does drive people to extraordinary, and sometimes tragic, lengths.