Me, Mr. Madoff and the Code of the Reporter

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Since the days of Damon Runyon, Gene Fowler and George Ade, journalists have carefully adhered to the unwritten Code of the Reporter.

It’s simple, as it has to be — we’re not mental giants. Here it is:

Learn to type well enough to produce an 800 word story in 20 minutes.

Only begin writing 25 minutes before deadline.

Never pass up a drink or the opportunity for a good time.

Don’t worry about your bills.

Enjoy life!

The practical consequences of adhering to the code include the production of vast quantities of forgettable prose and frequent calls from bill collectors. And since most of the earnest folks who pursue errant debtors are calling from India, they’re not as scary as they used to be.

In that spirit, I picked up one of those 1-800-PAYUPNOW calls the other day, with surprising results.

“Hi, Bernie?” said the voice on the line.

“That’s me,” said I, playing along.

“Bernie Madoff?”

“The same.”

“Mr. Madoff, we’re representing several of your creditors, who have asked us to contact you to make arrangements to discharge the debts you owe them.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m in a very tough situation right now, and much as I’d like to work with you, I don’t think that I can offer a satisfactory solution to these problems.”

“Mr. Madoff,” said the friendly voice, “my name is Ross Rogers and this is an attempt to collect a debt. But we’re willing to work with you, and help you create a payment plan that will eventually allow you to resolve all of these problems and even restore your credit.”

“I dunno,” I said, “I owe quite a bit, and there are some other creditors as well as the ones you’re representing.”

“That’s not a problem,” said Ross. “We can contact them, represent them as well, and have a comprehensive plan in place within a few days. To start with, how much do you owe in total?”

“About $60 billion,” I told him.

He didn’t seem surprised.

“Ok, let’s see what we can do,” he murmured. “Let’s see, it doesn’t look as if you have any active credit accounts — that’s good! First step to financial recovery: Cut up those pieces of plastic! So, what do you think you can put toward erasing your debts on a monthly basis?”

“I’m making about $60 a month working in the laundry in the Federal Correctional Institute here,” I said, “So I was thinking $30 a month.”

“That’s not a lot,” said Ross, “but as a percentage of your income, it shows good faith. Let’s see — we’re going to make this an interest-free deal, so you’ll be paid off a lot sooner than if we charged our usual 12 percent. And here’s the good news: You’ll have paid off all of your creditors at 100 cents on the dollar 166,666,666 years, seven months and three days from the date we receive your first payment. Does that work for you?”

“Mail me the papers,” I said, happy to have negotiated such a great deal for Bernie. “But I have one question. You didn’t seem surprised that I owe $60 billion — are there other people in the same situation?”

“Oh, you’re pretty small-time compared to some,” Ross said cheerfully. “Of course, I can’t give you any names, but there’s one account I’m working, a guy who lives large in a mansion in the middle of Washington. He won’t return my calls — he’s got secretaries and receptionists, and they listen, and thank me for calling, and that’s it. Our client, call him Mr. C, a major Asian investor, is beginning to get very nervous. This guy, Mr. O, is into him for more than $2 trillion — makes you look pretty small-time, doesn’t it?

“And you won’t believe this one — Mr. C keeps extending him credit, and all he gets are new IOU’s from Mr. O. I’ve told him that as long as he keeps extending credit, Mr. O is never going to pay up — why should he? Sometimes you just have to cut ‘em off, regardless of the consequences. Poor Mr. C — he’s just throwing good money after bad. Anyway, Bernie, thanks for being so cooperative, and I hope that Mr O can learn from your example.”

I was trying to digest the meaning of all this — Mr. O? Mr. C? Big white mansion? — when the phone rang. It was the same 1-800 number.

“Hi Ross, “I said, “Thanks for calling — I just had a couple of questions.”

“Hi John,” he said, “I’m glad you finally picked up. Are you ready to discuss paying off those credit cards you supposedly forgot about, or do we need to take legal action on behalf of our clients?”

I was trapped.

“Hey,” I said, “How about the deal you made with Bernie? I’ll pay $30 a month.”

“No deal,” said Ross. “You’re a reporter. We understand you guys. Pay up or join Bernie — and you can always ask Mr. O for a loan.”

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.