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An illustration shows Christopher Columbus standing before the king and queen of Spain, presenting Indians and treasures from the New World in 1493 in Barcelona.

Celebrating Columbus II: For the Love of Larceny

Steve Russell

The organizers of the Christopher Columbus honoring have sold their historical bill of goods well, and they promise “35,000 marchers. Over 100 groups, including bands, floats and contingents. Nearly one million spectators.” The New York Columbus Day Parade is, they claim “the world’s largest celebration of Italian-American culture.”

When I think of how offended most Italian-Americans get if you associate their culture with the Mafia, I am dumbfounded by their embrace of Christopher Columbus.

What about the entertainers and other public figures who are sucked into this celebration of homicide and theft? They are not historians, and they’ve been exposed to the same load of crap everybody else got in K-12.

The Righteous Brothers sang that if there’s a rock ‘n roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band, and former Grand Marshals of the Columbus Day Parade could put on a pretty good concert as well, with Henry Mancini (1985) conducting the orchestra, stage direction by Franco Zeffirelli (2002) or maybe Frank Capra (1974), and music by Sergio Franchi (1976), Frank Sinatra (1979), Luciano Pavarotti (1980), and Tony Bennett (1981).

There have also been actors (Sophia Loren 1984, Vince Gardenia 1988, Danny Aiello 1989) and sports figures (Tommy La Sorda 1990, Dan Marino 2000, Bobby Valentine 2001, Joe Di Maggio 1991, Mario Andretti 2004), and even Yogi Berra (1975).

: Columbus Day Grand Marshal and legendary actress Sofia Loren applauds during parade Festivities on New York’s Fifth Avenue, October 12, 1992. Loren was one of seven grand marshals celebrating the quintcentenary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. (AP Photo/Richard Harbus)

After the entertainers, there was a run of politicians, but 1986 was non-partisan, with Mario Cuomo and Alfonse D’Amato sharing the Grand Marshal gig. A lurch to the right with Rudy Giuliani in 1987 led to the conservative side of politics with George Pataki (1996, currently a GOP candidate for President) returning to the part of the political spectrum inhabited by John Volpe (1972).

I was thinking maybe Giuliani traded the platform for a parade permit, but he was not yet Mayor of New York in 1987. As a U.S. Attorney, he certainly had enough experience dealing with organized crime to recognize Columbus and his two brothers as the racketeers they were. Giuliani was known for nailing “Teflon Don” John Gotti by cutting a deal with murderer Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, and he was supposed to be tough on crime. Maybe the statute of limitations had run out on Columbus?

There have been a couple of Grand Marshals who bore some resemblance to the man they honored. Samuel Di Falco (1973) was a New York state judge who was indicted in 1976 but not convicted. Indicted again in 1978, he died while charges were pending and so was never convicted of anything.

Richard Grasso (1998) is a former head of the New York Stock Exchange who left that job in a torrent of lawsuits alleging conflicts of interest and excessive compensation. He, too, was only accused but never nailed. His $140 million golden parachute functioned perfectly and he laughed all the way to the bank.

People ride on a float with a large bust of Christopher Columbus during the Columbus Day parade in New York, Monday, October 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In 2005, they had the starboard anchor of the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, who provoked a bemused piece in The New York Times about how few people were able to recognize Justice Scalia without his black nightgown. It seems unlikely that Justice Scalia would have known much of the embarrassing truths surrounding Columbus.

RELATED: 8 Myths and Atrocities About Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day

As if recognizing the source of the recession and gravitating to it, the Columbus Citizens Foundation invited a series of business mavens that continues to this day, with the exception of Maria Bartiromo in 2010, who covers Wall Street antics for the Fox Business Channel.

In addition to Bartiromo, they secured the marshaling services of a venture capitalist, a financier, and a couple of corporate honchos in the front office of First Data Corporation. Finally, this year, they’ve engaged the perfect representative of greed. That’s the best they could do, since torture and homicide are out of fashion.

This year, the Grand Marshall of the Columbus Day Parade will be one Alberto Cribiore, Vice Chairman of Citi Institutional Clients Group. To the crowd, he’ll just be another suit, smiling and waving. Those who lost money behind his decisions might be less enthusiastic.

In the run-up to the Great Recession, Cribiore sat on the board of the ill-fated Merrill Lynch, one of several iconic names that ceased existing as independent entities because of reckless investment decisions. He owed his board seat to his friend (and Merrill Lynch CEO) Stan O’Neal, who was trying to rescue Cribiore from the likely crash and burn of Cribiore’s Brera Capital Partners, started in 1997, according to Fortune, with $650 million of other people’s money.

When his friend O’Neal threw him the Merrill Lynch lifeline in 2003, it was rational to think Brera was circling the drain well ahead of the general crash in 2008. In 2010, the worst was over and Brera survived. Cribiore told Fortune he hoped his original investors would eventually get their money back. There was nothing esoteric about Brera’s problems beyond poor judgment in choosing investments.

Merrill’s problem, on the other hand, was the kind of thing that brought investment banking to its knees and sucked down my retirement account and yours in 2008. Merrill was facing liability in unknowable amounts for collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), highly profitable papers that, along with credit default swaps would have burned down Wall Street without an injection of money from the government to pay off bad debts.

This year’s Grand Marshal for the Columbus Day parade is Alberto Cribiore (left). Honorees include Guy Chiarello, President of First Data, and Aldo Verrelli, President & Owner of A. Verrelli & Associates. (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

Facing CDO obligations that tripled within six months, Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal saw the writing on the wall and began to negotiate the sale of Merrill Lynch to someone big enough to absorb the hit that was coming. Bank of America appeared willing to take the risk and pay $100 billion for the privilege. O’Neal could not get this deal past Cribiore, who was the most influential investment banker on the Merrill board and also, O’Neal thought, a close friend who owed his board seat to O’Neal.

Subsequently, O’Neal tried to open negotiations with Wachovia, but Cribiore sunk that idea as well and at the end of the same month he sank O’Neal, forcing his resignation. Most Indians, and most human beings, would consider that dishonorable conduct unless it were clearly in the interest of Merrill shareholders, who are owed primary loyalty.

Less than a year after O’Neal got the boot, Merrill had to crawl back to Bank of America and put itself on the block for $50 billion, leading Fortune to call Cribiore “the man behind the curtain” in Merrill Lynch’s end and Alex Dumortier, writing for The Motley Fool, to dub him “the man who cost Merrill shareholders $50 billion.”

By the time Merrill shareholders got the $50 billion haircut, Elvis (in the person of Cribiore) had left the building, having gotten the investment banking gig at Citigroup he never could swing at Merrill Lynch. Fortune pointed out Cribiore “was negotiating for the Citi job while he was Merrill’s lead independent director, a fact that has irked some Merrill executives and former board members.” The Motley Fool went farther, reporting, the “conflict with his duty to shareholders is absolutely staggering.”

In part III, we will look at how similar greed played out starting in 1492.

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