Financial Criminals Have Been Fined Billions, but They Rarely Pay

Even though prosecutors declare victory when massive penalties are handed down, most of the money never gets recovered.

Jordan Belfort, whose crimes inspired the film The Wolf of Wall Street (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

On a plane earlier this week, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street. The film’s outsized antics—public masturbation, the tossing of little people, lots and lots of Quaaludes—seemed too big for a seatback screen, or, for that matter, reality. As despicable as some of Jordan Belfort’s behavior was, I was able to occasionally laugh at Leonardo DiCaprio's version of him knowing that, by now, more than 10 years after his real-life sentencing, Belfort has been sufficiently punished.

But in fact, that’s hardly the case: After pleading guilty to fraud and money laundering, Belfort was ordered in 2003 to pay out about $110 million to those he wronged. Since then, he’s only paid $11.8 million. He was also sentenced to four years in federal prison, but he only ended up serving just shy of two years.

Meanwhile, he’s thriving as a motivational speaker, and has made some money from selling the film rights to his life story. In a testimonial for his speaking services, Leonardo DiCaprio called Belfort “a shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work.”

Belfort’s relatively consequence-free story is only one of the more prominent ones in a parade of aggravating numbers reported on earlier this week by The Wall Street Journal. There’s still $97 billion out there in penalties that the Justice Department has failed to recover, and between September 2012 and September 2013, the department collected only 22 percent of penalties doled out. One particularly demoralizing figure was that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission had collected about a tenth of a percent of the $3.7 billion owed to wronged investors.

Percentages of Penalties Collected by the Government
The Wall Street Journal

So how do convicted felons go about avoiding their payments? Take the case of Paul Bilzerian, who owed the Securities and Exchange Commission $62 million and paid only $3.7 million over the course of 25 years. (The Journal reported a few days ago that the SEC was officially giving up on getting any more money from him, after having spent $8.6 million to get the meager amount that they did obtain.)

Bilzerian has systematically thwarted federal prosecutors by building a web of trusts, partnerships, and corporations established in sketchy tropical locales. He has passed on cash and assets to his sons. He delayed prosecutors for years with a bankruptcy filing. And he has transferred ownership of his 28,000 square-foot home to trusts that were owned by, at various times, his in-laws and his neighbor’s mom. “Do you think I’d be stupid enough to have a bank account?” Bilzerian told a Journal reporter.

Bilzerian’s son, Dan, who received an undisclosed amount of money from his father years ago, has built a sizable fortune of his own by gambling. He flaunts it on Instagram, where he has 4.6 million followers. Dan Bilzerian rarely posts a picture without a truck, a gun, a scantily-clad woman, or all three—and one recent image involving a little person and four women is, whether he knows it or not, an uncanny throwback to one memorable scene in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The press and public dwell on the comfortingly hard numbers of financial penalties—"he owes $110 million" is a fact easily digested—and not the messy job of following through on collecting them. And, just as dispiritingly, the attention of 4.6 million people shows itself again only when there are guns and girls involved, no matter the financial circumstances that explain their presence.