Archive for March 2010
BY KEVIN NELSON. March 19, 2010. Of all the crooks in the crooked memorabilia racket, the hardest ones to catch are authenticators of dubious repute. If you doubt this, consider the case of Jim Bellino, a former authenticator who was the target of an FBI investigation during Operation Bullpen and who is now appearing on a reality television series, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
Described by Bravo TV as “a self-made entrepreneur and businessman,” Bellino is certainly all that and more. He is married to Alexis, one of the Orange County housewives, both pictured here. Since his appearance on the show, he has become the focus of Internet gossip for his past activities in the memorabilia business. I wrote about Bellino in my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, and I have spoken many times with the FBI agents who investigated him.
“He was close mouthed, a tough cookie to crack,” said John Ferreira, the FBI undercover agent who posed as a memorabilia dealer and bought thousands of dollars of fake Babe Ruth-signed baseballs and other forged material from Bellino.
Based in the city of Orange in Orange County, Bellino ran a company called Forensic Document Services, which authenticated-that is, certified as legitimate-fake autographs produced by Greg Marino and other forgers who were part of the national ring that ripped off American consumers for $100 million before the FBI brought their fun to an end in 1999.
The Chicago FBI first identified Bellino as a subject of interest, and later the San Diego FBI probed his activities in Operation Bullpen. According to Tim Fitzsimmons, the FBI case agent who oversaw Bullpen and Ferreira’s undercover investigation, Forensic Document Services was certifying “ungodly” amounts of forgeries and then selling them.
The FBI, in fact, combined with slugger Mark McGwire, then playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, to concoct an elaborate scheme to see if they could get Bellino to admit, on tape, that he was selling forgeries. “The scheme,” as I write in my book, “had a few steps to it.”
First Ferreira wrote and signed a $20,000 check made out to McGwire’s charitable foundation for children. He never made this contribution; it was a sham. On the memo line of the check, it read, “Charity.” The FBI made a poster-sized copy of the check so it was big enough for two people to hold and the names and the amount could be seen clearly. Ferreira and Fitzsimmons then drove up to the Long Beach office of Jim Milner, McGwire’s business agent who managed the foundation and was also in on the scheme. Milner and Ferreira held the check between them and smiled as Fitzsimmons took a picture of them. Additionally, Milner composed a letter on foundation stationery, later signed by McGwire, thanking Ferreira for his generous gift.
The FBI then arranged for Ferreira and McGwire to pose for a picture together, which further bolstered Ferreira’s cover and lent him legitimacy (it was hoped) in Bellino’s eyes. With all this material in hand, Ferreira, secretly wired with recording equipment, paid a visit to Bellino at his office in Orange:
The feds next moved to their target. Since Ferreira’s usual demeanor had been a bust with Bellino, his colleagues argued for a change in approach-harder, tougher, more like a criminal. The ever-agreeable UCA said he’d give it a whirl, and on his next visit to Forensic Document Services he came on like a major asshole. Swearing and bragging and dropping the f-word all over the place and parading around with the two signed McGwire balls and the pictures of him and McGwire and him and Milner with the $20,000 check, Ferreira said he knew that all the garbage he was buying was bad and that all his customers knew it too. So to cover his ass he had dumped a load of money into Big Mac’s foundation. You know, to help the kids. All that crap.
Trying to close the deal, Ferreira told Bellino he should do the same-make a donation-because he was dealing lots of forgeries too, right?
If he was, he wouldn’t say. The cookie still would not crumble. All this tough talk made Bellino nervous or, as the agent put it, “hinked up.” Failing once more to crack his subject, Ferreira took his balls and photos and left, and the hinked-up owner of Forensic Document Services was undoubtedly happy to see him go.
Despite all the effort the FBI put into investigating Bellino, the cookie never did crumble. He never admitted anything on tape because, he said, he was innocent. He was not selling forgeries. One last excerpt from my book:
Though his authentication firm, Forensic Document Services, closed its doors after the bust, Bellino told a reporter that he was “neither tried nor convicted of any crime because I never would knowingly buy or sell an illegitimate or forged autograph.” Feeling sure he would be vindicated if his case went to trial, he declined to take the matter to court, citing the high cost of litigation and the length of time involved. Instead he accepted a deal with the government that gave him probation and expunged his record. He cannot, however, return to the memorabilia business without obtaining an order from the court.
In the FBI’s informal list of Bullpen subjects and the sentences they received, this is what it said about Bellino: “charged/probation/expunge/ban.” In other words, the feds barely laid a glove on him.
Autograph authentication remains an imprecise science and a rather dodgy one at that. For an authenticator only gives his opinion on whether a signature is legitimate or not, and as the FBI concedes-and the certificate itself states-his opinion may be wrong. So since it’s only his opinion, an authenticator can certify “ungodly” amounts of fraudulent material and it’s still very, very tough for investigators to prove in court that he is breaking the law.
Pretty nifty little racket, no? Sounds like it might make a good reality TV series.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him here.
By KEVIN NELSON March 11, 2010 Do forgers and fraud artists sell their fake goods at charity auctions? I was asked this question by a reader who had bought a signed 1932 Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig baseball at a charity auction and was appalled at the idea that it could be bogus.
“I bought this in good faith (it was a charity auction after all),” she wrote me in an email. “I had no reason to even question it.” Then she sold it to an auction house, which did indeed have reason to question it. The auction house submitted the ball to an authenticator and “it failed,” she told me gloomily.
Now the auction house has returned the ball to her and wants its money back. The woman is perplexed and now, suddenly, suspicious. She is not a collector and knew little about the authentication process before getting tangled up in this mess.
Without even seeing a picture of it, I told her that almost certainly the ball was bad. But how could that be-she bought it at a …charity auction! I suppose it is of little consolation to her to realize that she is hardly alone. Unsuspecting, well-intentioned Americans buy fake-signed merchandise at charity auctions all the time, all across this great and benevolent land.
Do the charities and nonprofit organizations know what they are peddling? No, likely they do not. Like this woman, the good-hearted people who put on these auctions are typically not collectors and innocent of the wolfish ways of counterfeit dealers. So, too, are the equally good-hearted souls who bid on these fakes, often paying an above-market price because they wish to support the good cause being funded by the auction. They likely think the autographs are legitimate as well.
And they may be. Not every signed piece of merchandise sold at a charity auction is a fraud, of course. But these auctions are a time-honored method for counterfeit dealers to move merchandise, and lots of it. The dealers may receive a percentage of the price of the items sold. They may receive tax deductions for their donations. They may get a tax deduction and make money. Through their gifts they may also come to be viewed by the charity as community benefactors, noble and selfless givers, although in reality they may only be crooks.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him here.Yes,
The other day I was looking into Muhammad Ali forgeries, and I had a surprising and disturbing revelation. Here is a photo of an authentic Ali signature sent to me by my friend Travis Roste, who runs joeheavyweight.com and wrote the article, “Heavyweight Autographs” in the latest issue of Autograph.
Now, here is a fake Ali signature sent to me by another friend of mine, John Olson, who was the man who forged it. Actually, it might be stretching things a bit to call Olson a friend, although we did speak many times when I was writing Operation Bullpen and I liked him and felt that he was telling me the truth.
Until the FBI busted him, Olson was one of the best and most productive of the Ali forgers, and his work is still available for sale on eBay and the Internet. Of course, other people not connected to Olson are doing the selling now; he left the racket long ago after changing his life. He received probation and cooperated fully with investigators. Anyhow, here is the picture:
Comparing the two, Olson’s Ali is bigger, bolder, and more clearly his name—more representative, in a way, of the larger than life persona of Ali himself. In the real sig, the a of his last name is so small it is almost invisible.
So if you’re an unsuspecting buyer shopping on the Internet, which photo would you choose? Both come with certificates of authenticity, after all, and the fake Ali is almost certainly cheaper too. Apart from issues of authenticity, in terms of the signature and the signature alone, the painful truth is that the forgery is a better consumer product.
If you are curious about the full story of John Olson’s criminal partnership with ex-heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, and how they went to town forging Ali photos, check out the last chapters of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. You can contact me here.