There’s no more telling sign of the times than the fact Wall Street’s newest guru is an ex-con finagler of U.S. prison-system loopholes who looks like Jesse Ventura’s tougher baby brother. Larry Levine, the 47-year-old founder of Wall Street Prison Consultants, offers the instructive program “Fedtime 101,” whose curriculum includes “Your first day what to bring with,” “Why staff lie & dislike inmates” and “How to survive a prison riot.” For oenophiles, he even provides a recipe for hooch. It begins: “Steal fruit from the dining hall . . .”
Levine has been offering advice on surviving prison life, navigating early-release programs and getting time shaved off sentences since his own release in 2007. The former private investigator served a 10-year sentence for narcotics trafficking, securities fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice and running machine guns. “I was an entrepreneur,” he explains. Six months ago, observing the uptick in the white-collar convict pool, he decided to “rebrand” his company, American Prisons Consultants, which is based in his Los Angeles apartment, and set up a separate shingle. It was a shrewd move: white-collar fraudsters, both male and female, now comprise 40 per cent of his clientele.
Levine possesses a tough-guy charisma that has captivated a media looking to fill a gap left by discredited stock prognosticators and economic pundits. The business hero of the moment has become a news-show staple, popping up on Anderson Cooper 360 and Nightline; the BBC will be interviewing him later this month. And, of course, there’s a reality show in the works that will chronicle Levine’s consultations with clients “going from the exchange floor to the prison yard.”
Levine’s at the forefront of an emerging prison-wrangling-and-etiquette sector directed at the executive class. He cites the fact that he was transferred to 11 institutions—from low to high security—as part of his edge over his six competitors: “I saw the country through the Bureau of Prisons. I flew Con Air,” he boasts. His competitors, on the other hand, have only worked “one to two years in minimum security.” He was moved around so much, he says, because his work as a prisoners’ rights advocate ticked off wardens. Suing the system on behalf of inmates provided a real education: “Inmates get their rights trampled on a lot,” he says.
Levine follows his own moral code. He wouldn’t help Bernie Madoff, who he claims approached him through representatives. “He’s an economic terrorist,” he says. Nor will he assist child molesters: “I’m a grandfather,” he explains. He figures he has given some 2,000 free consultations: “It’s my way of giving back to the community.” One is rumoured to have been with Shana Madoff, Madoff’s niece and the compliance lawyer at his firm. Levine says he was called out of the blue by a woman who refused to identify herself but said she was connected to Madoff. His advice was to save her own hide and cut a deal. Some 200 clients have paid his fees, which begin at US$850. Collecting can be tricky, he admits. “These people are criminals. And I can’t send a bill collector inside prison.”
The biggest challenge white-collar felons face, Levine says, is transitioning into prison society: “They lack street smarts.” He teaches people what he says they should already know: “Show some manners because people are under a lot of stress. Don’t be a jerk. Say ‘excuse me.’ Say ‘thank you.’ Don’t get into arguments or stare people down. Don’t go into the showers in the middle of the night. Use common sense.”
The physical dangers facing white-collar fraudsters have been overblown by TV and movies, he believes: “Most don’t end up in dangerous institutions with real criminals.” (Madoff will be the exception, Levine says, due to the length of his sentence. “They’re going to kill him in jail,” he predicts. “A lot of people want to keep Bernie quiet.”)
Working the system, paradoxically, can require engaging in more fraud. Faking a physical disability, for instance, can result in a “medical restriction” that will lead to less strenuous work duties. “If you know how to type and you have half a brain, you’re going to be doing paperwork instead of yardwork,” he says. Feigning an addiction will land an inmate in a rehab program, which can reduce sentence time, even without evidence of drug or alcohol abuse in the pre-sentencing report. “I love fraud,” jokes Levine, who’s still on federal supervised release. Easy for him to say, now that he’s on the outside looking in.