Remember when Wall Street traded in actual commodities, not derivatives and other “financial products” that made it oh-so-easy to bamboozle investors? The good old days—when it was just as easy, it turns out, to pull the wool over the eyes of the unsuspecting. Easier, maybe. If you were Bronx native Anthony “Tino” De Angelis, all you needed was a refinery in Bayonne and a working knowledge of the nation’s soybean surplus.
The son of Italian immigrants, De Angelis was a commodities broker who’d run into trouble with the law for supplying improperly prepared meat to the federal school-lunch program. In the early sixties, he finagled an initial contract with the U.S. government’s Food for Peace program, which sold excess foodstuffs to poor countries. And on the basis of his stunningly large, almost totally fake inventory—De Angelis claimed 1.8 billion pounds of soybean oil, but had only 110 million—the swindle raised at least $180 million from investors.
De Angelis filled some of his tanks with water, leaving only a thin film of oil on top in case of inspection—perhaps the most literal Wall Street slickster of them all. But soybean prices tumbled when the Soviet market didn’t open up as De Angelis had expected, and when panicked investors came knocking to collect on their chits, the authorities followed.