CHAPTER XXIII

MR. PONZI OFFERS UNCLE SAM $200,000,000 FOR HIS SHIPPING BOARD FLEET

I had not seen the postal inspectors for some time. I had not heard from them. And was wondering whether they had met with an accident. As I had often hoped for. Or, given up the investigation as a bad job. But no such luck. They had been digging up dirt.

In fact, one day the phone rang. The clerk in the outer office answered on the extension. Then he came to tell me that the United States Attorney was on the wire. I left the receiver on my desk and announced myself.

"Mr. Ponzi," I heard a voice saying, "this is an assistant United States District Attorney, speaking."

"How do you do?" I greeted him. "What can I do for you?"

"I would like to confer with you," he replied. "Would it be convenient for you to see me?"

"Certainly," I told him. "Where shall I meet you?"

"Could you meet me in my office in Boston?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," I answered.

"When?" he inquired.

"Right now, if you want to." I stated.

"I don't want to inconvenience you, Mr. Ponzi," he apologized.

"You are not inconveniencing me at all," I assured him. "I am always glad to place myself entirely at the disposal of the United States Attorney."

That wasn't so at all. I would just as soon see the devil any day. But a man has to be polite now and then.

"That's very nice of you," he commented. The assistant district attorney—I mean, not the devil. "You say you could come now?"

"Yes, sir. I can be at your office inside of ten minutes," I promised.

"Then I shall expect you," he said. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it. I'll be there." I told him.

I went at once to his office. Announced myself. I was ushered into his private office. There, I found one of his assistants, a stenographer, and my two "friends", the post-office inspectors. We exchanged the usual greetings.

"Where is your attorney?" the assistant district attorney asked.

"I have no attorney," I replied.

"Do you mean to tell me that you have come alone to this conference?" he asked.

"Am I threatened with any danger?" I asked back.

"No," he admitted. "But I assumed that you wished to protect your rights. As you know, under the constitution, you are not compelled to speak unless you want to."

"But I have no intention of invoking my constitutional prerogatives," I assured him. "I assume that you want to learn from me something about my activities. I will be only too glad to answer your questions because I have nothing to conceal."

"Mr. Ponzi," he stated. "I am very favorably impressed by your attitude. Do you object to the presence of the post-office inspectors?"

"That's all according to how they behave," I replied with a tinge of humor. "In my office they have forced me to remind them that they were on my premises without authority. However, if they promise to behave, they may remain."

"They are here only in the capacity of spectators anyways," he assured me. "I will conduct the conference."

"All right, then, I agree. Let us get down to business."

The conference lasted about two hours. I reiterated the statements previously made about coupons. I covered the same ground covered at previous conferences. And when the conference was concluded he seemed pleased. He did not give any indication that he suspected irregularity. If he did suspect, he was keen enough to realize that I had gone into the thing without a criminal intent and was trying my darndest to do the right thing. Even if in a most deplorable way.

The conference with the United States District Attorney did not alarm me. No more than previous conferences with other officials. In fact, why should it have alarmed me? For nine months I had been under investigation. I had been asked all sorts of questions. And I had been able to answer them all. No action had ever been taken against me. I felt reasonably sure that none would be taken, so long as I kept paying my notes. At any rate it was too late for me to stop any action that might be contemplated.

I dismissed the conference from my mind. And went along as usual. Meeting events and unexpected situations as they occurred.

One day, I received a hurried call from one of the trust companies. The officer wouldn't tell me over the phone what the matter was. So, I went down to the bank.

"What is the scandal now?" was the first thing I asked.

"We have found a good man for one of your offices," the officer told me.

"For the love of Mike!" I said a bit resentfully. "Is this the important message you had for me?"

"Yes," he admitted with the least vestige of shame. "He is well recommended and will be very useful to you."

"Why didn't you send him up to the office and talk to Miss Meli?" I wanted to know.

"He has been up to your office," he replied. "And you have met him. But it seems that you did not give him much hope."

"Who is he, anyway?" I inquired.

"A young man by the name of, let's say 'Smith,'" he said.

"I'll be darned if I remember him," I remarked.

"Don't you remember a young feller asking you for the Holyoke office?" he asked.

"Oh, yes," I admitted. "I think I do. But I told him that the Holyoke office was already covered."

"Well, he is the man," he confirmed, "and you must give him that office."

"What's that?" I said pricking my ears at the word "must."

"I said you must give him that office," he repeated.

"What's the big idea?" I demanded to know. "Why all the pressure?"

"You take our advice and give him the Holyoke office," another officer urged.

"The thing is getting interesting," I had to admit. "What are you so much in earnest for? I have my own man there and I am entirely satisfied with him."

"Well, fire him," one suggested.

"I will, like heck!" I shot back at him.

"Give him another agency," the other suggested.

"Look here," I said. "What is the young man to you, anyway?"

"Nothing," he confessed. "Except that I have been told to get him that office."

"Explain to your friend the circumstances," I told him.

"Impossible," he stated. "I must do as he says."

"There's no reason why I should do as he says," I argue.

"Oh, yes, there is," he answered back.

"Say, are you trying to be funny?" I asked. "There is no man alive who can tell me what to do and not to do."

"Listen, Charlie," he coaxed. "It's no use to beat around the bush. The 'boss' wants you to give that man the Holyoke office."

"The 'boss'? And who in heck is the 'boss'?" I wanted to know.

"Don't you know?" he asked in surprise.

"No, I don't know!" I had to admit.

"Well, for God's sake! Where have you been all this time?" He mentioned one of the men running the state and he was positively amazed at my political ignorance.

"What?" I asked, afraid to have been misunderstood.

"It's just him," he confirmed. "One of the big boys up on the hill."

"Well! Well! Well! " I said by way of comment. "So, he wants the job covered by one of his friends?"

"I don't like the idea of being bossed," I told him. "But since the big boy thinks enough of my business to become associated with it through his political friends, I believe I will grant the request."

"That's fine!" said he. "So, it is settled?"

"Yes," I assured him. "You can tell the boss that his order will be obeyed right away. And you can also tell that young man to come to my office and arrange the details with Miss Meli. I will wire my man in Holyoke that I have another place for him."

The confidence of the "boss" in my business was rather flattering. I assumed that he would not have urged one of his friends upon me unless he was satisfied, from investigation, that, in his opinion, I was conducting a legitimate enterprise. So, I began to feel hopeful that all government activities against me would soon cease.

Shortly after that, my attention was attracted by an advertisement. Or, some sort of announcement. The United States government was offering for sale the Shipping Board fleet. And imposing array for some 3,000 vessels which had been built during the way at the tremendous cost of nearly $3,000,000,000! The government was asking $20 per dead-weight ton. They were easily worth $200. Their combined tonnage was approximately 10,000,000. The deal would have involved a lump sum of about $200,000,000!

I took a day off. I went over my data on foreign trade and shipping. Did a lot of figuring. And became convinced that I ought to buy that fleet! I lost no time. Once my mind was made up, I acted. I sent one of my men to Washington with my bid of $200,000,000 and a check for $2,000,000 as a guaranty of my good faith.

In the meanwhile, I began to plan what to do about the money. And with the fleet. In the event it was awarded to me, as it might have been.

In my bid I had mentioned that I would pay cash C.O.D. within 30 days of the acceptance of my bid. And unnecessary haste. Because the government would have been willing to wait ten years for the money. In fact, it waited longer than that. And got nothing for it in the end, from others.

To raise 200 million in 30 days, was not much of a problem, for me. My daily receipts had already reached the million dollar mark. And I was operating only in New England. Or, "on" New England. As some wise guy might say. With requests for agencies from every state in the Union, in 48 hours I could have covered the country from coast to coast, like a radio hook-up.

But that wasn't all. I was getting cables from Indian maharajahs asking me how many million rupees I would accept for investment. Cables from Chinese mandarins offering millions of taels. Cables from Australian and South African "gold diggers" tendering millions of pounds sterling. Cables from South America talking about millions of pesos, or milreis, or bolivianos, or sucres, or sols. A long telegram from a Canadian bank informed me that a Mr. Leyture had deposited with them $7,000,000 to my credit! To raise $200,000,000 under those circumstances would have been a cinch.

I was considerably more puzzled about the fleet. What was I going to do with it? With 3,000 vessels of all sizes? With the Leviathan? With all of the floating Presidents? With the legion of freighters and tankers and tramp steamers?

There wasn't much I could do with them. Except re-sell them. So, I lay awake nights studying some selling arguments, some use for the boats, some ways and means to promote a number of subsidiary companies which would take them off my hands.

The fleet was actually going to stand me 320 million dollars. Because, to buy it, I was borrowing 200 million at 50%, through the Securities Exchange Company. And paying agents' commissions amounting to 20 million dollars.

I devised the organization of two companies. One, the Charles Ponzi Steamship Company, which would have owned the fleet. The other, the International Shipping & Mercantile Company, which would have leased and operated the vessels. The C. P. S. S. Co. was to be capitalized at $1,000,000 or 1,000 shares of common stock at $1,000 each. This company would have issued $350,000,000 of 12% ten-year bonds.

The I.S.&M. Co. would have exchanged 3,500,000 shares of its common stock for 500 shares of the C.P.S.S. Co.'s common. Then it would have underwritten the entire bond issue at 93. Or, for $325,000. Paying for it with demand notes. It would have offered for sale to the public at large one $100-bond, one $100-share of preferred and one of no-par-value common for $200. Notes of the Securities Exchange Company, at their maturity value, would have been accepted in payment, in lieu of cash. The sale of the stock, whether for cash, or against such notes, would have wiped out all liabilities of the Securities Exchange Company. And that company would have passed out of existence.

The next step was to find a way to wipe out the indebtedness of the two new companies. To this end, the I. S. & M. Co. would have leased the entire fleet by paying to the C. P. S. S. Co. $80,000,000 a year for ten years. The C. P. S. S. Co. would have applied the 80 millions to the payment of interest on the bond issue and to the amortization of the principal. The interest would have amounted to 420 millions in ten years. The 38 millions set aside each year for the amortization of the principal, would have earned easily 3% net. Or not less than 12 millions in ten years. Leaving $42,000,000 after payment of the principal, to be distributed as dividend to the common stock. Something like $42,000 a share!

The I. S. & M. Co. would have sub-leased the vessels to a number of subsidiary companies for 150 million dollars a year for ten years. That would have left the company $70,000,000 a year with which to pay the interest on its preferred stock and for the amortization of the principal. The interest would have amounted to 280 millions in ten years. The 43 millions set aside each year for the amortization of the principal would have earned 3%. Or, not less that $15,000,000 in ten years. Leaving 85 millions, after payment of the principal, to be distributed as dividend to the common stock. About 12 dollars a share.

At the end of ten years, it did not matter, so far as I was concerned, what become of the fleet, from the standpoint of money. It would have earned for me and my companies everything I had planned it should earn. But, in order that my ten-year plan might be successful, I would have to organize and control a number of subsidiary companies.

Such companies would have been capitalized in accordance with their requirements. Their capitalization would have consisted of preferred stock and no-par-value common. The I. S. & M. Co. would have retained 51% of all the common in each instance. The preferred and the remaining 49% of the common would have been offered to manufacturers, exporters, and importers. Some, to the general public. Each subsidiary company would have paid to the I. S. & M. Co. a rental price of $15 per dead-weight ton per year for such vessels as it might have leased.

My figures were all based upon dead-weight tonnage. The entire fleet consisted of 10,000,000 tons. Leased by the C. P. S. S. Co. to the I. S. & M. Co. for $8 a ton per year. Subleased by the I. S. & M. Co. to the subsidiary companies for $15 a ton per year.

Thus, as an illustration, a ten-thousand-ton vessel would have cost the subsidiary company $150,000 a year. In addition to the operating expenses, which I had no means of estimating. But such vessel could have made easily four round trips a year. Even to distant ports. And could have carried, therefore, 80,000 tons of cargo.

Assuming that the operating expenses amounted to $8 per ton, still it would have cost them altogether only $10 a ton for their freight. And that was about one-half of what shippers were paying in those days.

Each subsidiary company would have operated its own vessels independently. The freight boats, I mean. Insofar as it was practical to do so. Insofar as it could guarantee a full cargo both ways. The I. S. & M. Co. would have operated all of such other vessels as the subsidiary companies could not themselves operate. In that case, the actual operating expenses, plus the lease price per ton, would have been prorated on the basis of the freight-tonnage carried.

It was also my plan that passenger steamers should be used as floating sample rooms for American products. They would travel from port to port, carrying those tourists who might care to go along. But carrying particularly American salesmen and buyers, a variety of samples, and a whole cargo of goods. Goods that could be delivered right from the boat to any chance foreign buyer. On their return trips, those boats would have picked up whatever freight they could, or goods especially bought right on the spot by the American buyers on board.

Apparently, the whole scheme was a money-making proposition. I was optimistic enough to believe that I would have cleaned up several millions. Not only that, but I believed also that I had discovered a safe way out of my difficulties. However, I was only secondarily interested in the profitable aspect of the thing. Primarily, it was my object to restore the prestige of the American Merchant Marine.

I was a patriotic cuss in those days. American in everything, except in name, because my full papers were not due yet. One hundred per cent American. More so than many natives. Including those in Wall Street and in Washington who were doing their darndest to keep the American boats rotting at anchor, in order that the International Mercantile Marine of John Bull might not lose its supremacy.

Nothing would have pleased me more than to see the Stars and Stripes float where the Union Jack was then floating. With every blessed thing any country might wish for, in the way of products and money, and plenty of both, I could not see the sense for the United States of having to depend on foreign shipping. And nobody in America could see any sense, either. Except those responsible for the situation. But if they saw any sense in it, it must have been spelled c-e-n-t-s. And it must have summed up to a good many dollars. Pardon my error, I should have said pounds sterling. Of the same coinage in which Benedict Arnold was paid.