NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When Anthony "Tino" De Angelis, a soybean-oil magnate based in Bayonne, New Jersey, wanted to fool his auditors, he filled his warehouse tanks almost to the brim with water, then floated a few yards of oil on top. Uncritical auditors took a peek into a handful of those tanks, saw what they'd come to see, and signed off on the De Angelis audit: all clear.
With his assets officially sanctified by his accounting firm, De Angelis used those Bayonne assets as collateral for loans from many banks, including Chase Manhattan. And he used the funds from those loans to attempt a bold ploy: the cornering of the soybean-oil market. The inevitable collapse of his scam brought American Express (AXP) (one of his creditors) to its knees; its stock lost half its value. Two Wall Street brokerages went belly up. Fifty banks failed.
This was in 1962 and 1963. The scam cost investors, banks and their counter-parties nearly $220 million. In today's dollars, that's $1.6 billion.
"It was a textbook example of accounting fraud," says Louis Straney, an expert on high-level financial larceny and, as it happens, the author of the textbook Securities Fraud: Detection, Prevention and Control. And its lessons are the lessons of all corporate accounting deceit, from Enron to Lehman Brothers. "De Angelis presents the classic example of how a man can exploit a complicated situation and use the credulity of high financiers for tremendous gain," commented Time magazine when De Angelis was arraigned in federal court in 1965. White-collar swindling on a possibly massive scale has yet again entered the minds of investors in recent months, this time caused by a burgeoning raft of fraud revelations and allegations directed at Chinese companies that have sold shares in the U.S. So many China-based companies -- such as China Media Express (CCME) and Longtop Financial (LTF) -- have blown up amid accusations of fictitious profits that some investors have come to doubt the financial reports of an entire nation.