“Find a way to pay me, or leave the bank,” my boss, Teresa Tedescho, snarled her ultimatum.
My entire professional life felt like it was slipping away. If caught, I could lose my licenses, get fined hundreds of thousands, and be banned from the securities industry for life. Life, hell, I was only forty-two. Cutting lawns and plowing driveways for the next thirty-plus years was a decidedly unattractive proposition.
I was hired by Johnson City Bank to build a brokerage program in the late 1990’s. All the community banks were getting into the brokerage industry at the time; they saw it as an easy way to increase fee income at minimal risk to the bank. I was successfully running a hundred-broker operation for a bank in Tennessee, but my wife wanted us to relocate to southern New York State to be nearer her family, so I joined the small bank.
Executive Vice President Teresa Tedescho, the bank’s Retail Head, reported directly to the bank President, Jim Abbott. Teresa ran the twenty-seven branches and branch operations – anything that directly dealt with the retail customers of Johnson City Bank. Her domain included my new brokerage operation.
My first clue there was something off at the bank was when Jim started hiding the decaf coffee. Jim was over six foot tall, skinny, with a fringe of short grey hair around his bald dome. Jim liked to arrive first at the bank’s main office and start the coffee brewing, which was definitely in his skill set. Unwritten bank rule - no-one was supposed to get to work before Jim. When he learned I drank decaf in the morning and didn’t switch to regular until the afternoon, he began hiding the decaf coffee packages for the Bunn coffee maker. So, I started getting to the office before Jim and making my decaf, tying up the coffee maker by the time he arrived!
Jim, a frustrated ballplayer who never made it out of Single-A ball, patrolled the halls of the main office’s executive floor, slapping a full-sized, Jason Giambi autographed baseball bat in his meaty, oversized hands. Jim was proud, so proud, of his upbringing: “I never went to no fancy-ass college,” he would brag at every opportunity. Gee, as if I couldn’t tell. “I learned banking the hard way, one job at a time,” then slap the bat in his hand for emphasis.
His antipathy to education frequently brought his derision down on me as the only department head with an MBA. Other people lower in the organization also had advanced degrees, but they weren’t conveniently located on mahogany row!
Teresa was a more difficult read. She was stumpy and overweight, sporting dyed short black hair with a chunk swept sideways across her forehead. Makeup caked her round face, with black beady eyes poking through.
Dressed primarily in black, Teresa tottered around on high heels; it always looked like her ankles would give out at any moment, forcing her into some unpleasant splits. She seldom complimented any of her employees, or said much at all, until she went off the rails. Her specialty was yelling at the branch personnel, screaming louder and louder, until spittle formed at the edge of her mouth. Then she would turn on her heels and storm out.
I started work at the bank in June of 1998. By August, I had hired my first three brokers, and, by year-end, my team was earning over thirty grand a month for the bank. The brokers got paid on commission, and my variable compensation, called an “override,” was twenty-five percent of the commissions. The rest went to the bank. A bank that had nothing in brokerage fee income in 1997 was projecting almost a million dollars in revenue for 1999.
At the end of January 1999, I sauntered into Teresa’s office with my decaf for our monthly meeting. I was expecting significant praise over last month’s numbers and planned to discuss adding another five brokers. Instead, Teresa leaned across her desk, narrowed her over-mascaraed eyes, and told me she expected to receive her “cut.”
Nothing like that had ever been mentioned before.
“Teresa, the bank can certainly pay you, but you will need to get your Series 24 Principal’s and New York State Life Insurance and Annuity licenses first.”
“Like I have the time to do that,” she responded snidely.
“Well, it’s illegal to pay commissions to an unlicensed person.”
“You,” she stated, pointing her meaty little stub at me, “could pay me directly.” Obviously, she knew the rules prior to our meeting.
“But I would still be paying you from the commissions on the transactions, which is illegal.”
“I want three thousand a month, or you can find another job.”
“You’ll be killing the golden goose,” I responded angrily. “I am the one who built this operation, and I have a contract for my override.”
Tersa didn’t respond, shooting poisoned arrows at me across her desk from her hard dark eyes. To end this patently illegal conversation, I added, “If you force me out, I will sue the bank for breach of contract, and you, directly, for tortious interference in my contract with the bank. Is that what you want?”
That was when she repeated her demand to pay her or leave the bank. She waived her hand to indicate I was dismissed from her imperial presence.
Later that day was the monthly bank unit heads’ meeting. Paul Butterfield, Senior Vice President of Lending, pulled me aside to the corner of the conference room. He shot a furtive look over my shoulder, scanned the room, and whispered to me. “Heard you’ve been having some trouble. You know who Teresa’s father is, don’t you?”
“No idea,” I replied.
“Carmine ‘Big Tuna’ Tedescho. He is the head of organized crime in Scranton. The Tedescho family runs the brewery, the funeral parlors, as well as the concrete plants there. They say old Carmine Tedescho has buried fifty people under the new runway at the Scranton Wilkes-Barre airport.”
What the hell? How did I wind up working for a dinky bank with an organized crime connection? I thought I had done my homework. How much did Jim Abbott know about the situation?
I called Anita, Jim’s AA, and made an appointment to see him the next morning. Promptly, at eight-thirty, I laid out the whole problem, told him what Teresa was demanding, and explained the illegality of the whole thing.
Jim reached behind his desk, pulled out his bat, and tapped it suggestively in his palm. “Do what you have to do,” he said in his best Pontius Pilate manner. “But leave the bank out of it!”
So, I did what Jim ordered, resolving the problem of Teresa’s cut without involving the bank. I called a guy, who knew another guy, who knew a guy in Las Vegas. We spoke on burner cell phones, and he agreed to whack Teresa for twenty-five grand. For another ten, he’d throw in Jim Abbott, as he’d already be in the area.
Of course, it now costs me three grand a month for protection from the Tedeschos, but as President of Johnson City Bank, I can afford it.