Still Searching For Repentance
09/22/09
Assistant Managing Editor
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When Sam Antar recites the viduy list of sins in the Yom Kippur liturgy Monday, it will be a like a checklist of his past. He has stolen. He has cheated. He has betrayed. He has caused others to sin. And by his own admission, he loved every minute of it. 

“I enjoyed committing my crimes, and I did it for fun and profit,” says the former chief financial officer of the Crazy Eddie electronics chain, who helped bilk customers, investors and the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars. 

For 18 years, beginning when he was 14, he rose through the ranks of a fraudulent company that grew from a pop-and-son operation in Flatbush to 43 outlets in the tri-state area, until 1987, when investors seized control of the audacious corporation and its founder fled to Israel. Then came the reckoning from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. When the dust and subpoenas settled, the company was liquidated, thousands were jobless and dozens of investors took a bath. Sam Antar became a federal witness to administer the coup de grace, walking investigators through the profit skimming, inflation of inventory and stock fraud. In the process, he put his former boss and cousin, Eddie Antar, and another cousin, Mitchell Antar, in prison. The extent to which a family in the Syrian Jewish community, by all accounts close-knit, could implode on itself was jarring for outsiders to behold. Another scandal in the Syrian community, perhaps even more wrenching than the Crazy Eddie affair — the recent arrest of three Syrian rabbis on federal money-laundering charges — has put Antar back in the spotlight. But this time as a commentator on white-collar crime, which he has been crusading against ever since the Crazy Eddie scandal days. Ultimately, Sam’s plea deal saved himself and his father, Eddy Antar, who was also implicated in the scheme, from prison. The senior Antar was not prosecuted, while Sam copped to three felony counts of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest and 1,200 hours of community service working with kids who have attention deficit disorder. He also paid $30,000 in fines — less than a drop in the bucket in the scale of his multi-million dollar scheme. But he makes no pretense of having settled his debt to society. “My sins are unforgivable,” says Antar, 51. “I’m going downstairs for a long time before I go upstairs. “The shareholders, the 3,000 employees, the auditors that we played games with: those are the victims. God forgives you for the sins between man and God. God also requires you to account for your fellow man. You would have to produce thousands of people to individually forgive me. That’s never going to happen.” Antar is in good company on an increasingly penitent American landscape. NFL quarterback Michael Vick seeks redemption for his cruelty to animals. Disgraced  ex-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer tries to shake his licentious reputation for a political comeback. South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson apologizes for calling President Barack Obama a liar on live TV. Pop singer Kanye West tries to get his foot out of his mouth after his strident dissenting opinion on a music awards show. But when the harsh spotlight fades, few people have seemingly gone to such lengths to atone for deeds the public has all but forgotten about as Sam Antar, who has spent 11 years traveling the country at his own expense to offer government and corporate audiences a glimpse into the mind of the white-collar criminal. He is able to do this because of good real estate investments made with money from the family of his soon-to-be-ex-wife Robin. “He’s definitely turned his life around,” said Gary Weiss, a business journalist and author who has used tips from Antar on his Web site. “He doesn’t like to tell you that he’s weighed down by the burdens of his crimes; he doesn’t like to admit that he’s changed. He doesn’t want to give himself that much credit. He’ll just say ‘you should never trust people like me.’ ” After hearing him on a National Public Radio podcast, Rabbi Reuven Spolter of Orot College of Education in Elkana, Israel, reached out to Antar and featured his story twice on his blog, Chopping Wood, as an example of teshuvah. “There are some people who feel their teshuvah is constant, almost like overcoming an addiction,” said the rabbi in a phone call from Israel. “He seems to feel that way about his crimes, that he can relapse at any time. It’s a fascinating example we don’t often see.” Deborah Trotter, public information officer for the IRS criminal investigation unit in the greater Washington area, said that when Antar recently spoke to field agents about the Crazy Eddie scandal, “It was interesting for our investigators to see somebody who was prosecuted speak from the other point of view.” Antar doesn’t claim that any good that comes out of the sessions will make up for the past. “If I stop you from being mugged, how does that help the victims of previous crimes?” he asks. “Do they get back what they have lost in terms of time, money, suffering?” In his war on white-collar crime, chronicled on his Web site, whitecollarfraud.com, Antar has made some interesting friends and enemies. In the former category is Barry Minkow, the convicted carpet-cleaning company fraudster who became a Christian minister and, like Antar, a lecturer on corporate fraud. In the latter category is Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, with whom Antar has engaged in a protracted public battle, claiming on his blog that the company has manipulated its stock price. Their feud has  gotten so ugly that Antar and his supporters have accused Byrne of anti-Semitic blog posts about them.The Anti-Defamation League declined to get involved. In an interview Tuesday, Byrne said Antar had posted “over 10,000 times on message boards [on business-related sites] over three years throwing mud. It’s a smear campaign, and it’s particularly sick when he brings in Judaism.” He was referring to the charges of anti-Semitism. Antar can’t quite pinpoint the time when he started to feel bad about his crimes, but he says it was in the course of raising his three sons, who were too young at the time of the scandal to know what was going on. “It had no impact on them growing up,” he says. Today, one teaches about real estate at Baruch College, another works for apparel retailer Abercrombie and Fitch and a third is a college student in California. He says his kids have come to look on the scandal as “their father’s stupidity,” but it hasn’t stood in the way of their relationship. During the time that Crazy Eddie exploded onto the scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s, competitors must have looked at its success with the same disbelief as competing brokers who looked at Bernard L. Madoff Investments. It was too good to be true. In the early days of the consumer electronics boom, retailers had an informal agreement on how much profit they would make so as not to undercut each other. Crazy Eddie burst out of the pack by thumbing its nose at that pact. I had a firsthand look at the chain’s success in 1985 and 1986 as a college student earning a few bucks selling records, tapes and CDs at two Crazy Eddie outlets. I didn’t work directly for Eddie but for Benel Distributing, run by his brother-in-law, but the two businesses were joined at the hip. I was surrounded by full-time employees who believed in the brand, and when Eddie himself paid a visit to the Midtown store, he was like MacArthur visiting the troops. Long-timers called him Kelso, after a racehorse of the late-‘50s who came from behind to be an unlikely champion. What those dedicated employees didn’t know was that Eddie’s secret wasn’t just beating competitors’ prices but cooking the books. The company had made it big on the stock market by easing its profit-skimming in preparation for a public offering, in order to show increasing sales. The value of the chain was further inflated by counting the same inventory multiple times. It was my fascination with Crazy Eddie that led me to Sam Antar. I never depended on the stores for my livelihood, just some college spending money and records at cost, and so I had no reason to be bitter. But I felt sorry for all the people I had worked with who had been loyal soldiers in Eddie’s army. I asked Antar if the chain could have thrived without the corruption. In one interview, he said “We were never honest. It’s hard to speculate about what would have happened if we were honest.” But a few months later, sitting at a table in the Times Square pedestrian mall on the last day of summer, a tanned Antar, just back from a visit with his son in Los Angeles, says it was only the skimming, paying employees off the books and avoidance of sales tax that gave Crazy Eddie a leg up on the competition. “You can’t survive on a business model where you beat everyone’s price,” he says. “There’s no free lunch in economics. If it looks too good to be true, it is.” Times are getting tougher for Sam as he and his wife of 28 years split up. The irony of the marriage having endured scandal only to disintegrate years later is not lost on him. “I give my wife a lot of credit for sticking with me, especially during the Crazy Eddie times,” he says. “But after 28 years we grew apart.” The breakup will have financial repercussions, and in 2008, the state education department finally got around to pulling his CPA license, 15 years after his felony convictions. So he finds himself increasingly accepting fees from private corporations for speaking engagements. So is all his public repentance a marketing tool? “I did this for free for 11 years,” he says. “During that time I raised millions of dollars for nonprofit groups that charged people money to hear me speak. I spent at least a half-million out of pocket. Even if I’m making money now, it would be years before I recover the costs.” He says he still does four out of five speeches for free. Until last year, when he moved to Manhattan, Antar lived in the same Syrian Jewish community where he grew up and says he never felt ostracized. And after years of avoiding each other at family gatherings, Sam and Eddie came face to face in June 2007 on the set of the CNBC show “Business Nation.” Sam did most of the venting while Eddie, who looked tired and wounded, eventually said he understood what Sam had to do. “There was a lot of pent-up anger, built up over 20 years,” Sam says now. “I want to let bygones be bygones and reconcile with him.” He’s called his cousin a few times lately, but is still waiting for a call back. And what of reconciliation with his Creator? “That’s between him and God,” says Rabbi Spolter. “But I think his apology is sincere. He seems to go crazy about any infraction [by white-collar criminals] that he sees and seems to be quite vigilant. I think anyone who meets him gets that sense.”

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10/08/2009 - 11:15

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