Joon H. Kim, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and William F. Sweeny Jr., Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced today that JASON NISSEN was arrested and charged in Manhattan federal court today with defrauding victims of at least $70 million by falsely representing that he was using the victims’ money to further a profitable, multimillion-dollar wholesale ticket business. NISSEN was arrested this morning and will be presented in Manhattan federal court later today.
Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Kim said: “Jason Nissen claimed he was investing in premium tickets for events like the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Broadway hit ‘Hamilton,’ but as alleged, Nissen was actually cheating his investors out of over $70 million and spending it on himself. The veneer of a successful and interesting business was allegedly just that, an alleged cover for a massive Ponzi scheme.”
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said: “As charged today, Nissen represented his business as an investment opportunity for those willing to finance the purchase of large quantities of premium tickets to a number of sporting events and entertainment venues. The tickets were supposed to be sold for profit, but they weren’t. As alleged, Nissen eventually defrauded his victims out of at least $70 million collectively, all of which he used in furtherance of his scheme and for his own personal gain. For Nissen, the final quarter didn’t prove as profitable as anticipated; he must now face the penalty for his actions.”
According to the Complaint filed in Manhattan federal court:
Since 2012, NISSEN has operated a ticket resale business (the “Ticket Company”) located in Manhattan, New York, through which NISSEN purchased large quantities of premium tickets for sporting and entertainment events, and then resold such tickets for a profit. NISSEN was the Ticket Company’s chief executive officer and president.
The Ticket Company’s website states that “[The Ticket Company] is an industry leader in providing VIP access and premium tickets to all concerts, Broadway theatre, red carpet premieres and sporting events worldwide . . . the Ticket Company stocks one of the largest revolving inventories for sports, concerts, and theatre worldwide.”
From 2015 to May 2017, NISSEN defrauded multiple victims of tens of millions of dollars through the Ticket Company. NISSEN represented to victims that he would use money lent to him and his ticket business by victims to purchase bulk quantities of premium tickets to sporting and entertainment events such as the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the U.S. Open, and “Hamilton,” and then resell the tickets at a profit. However, in truth and in fact, NISSEN used the victims’ money in large part to repay other victims and to enrich himself.
For example, one victim, referred to as “Victim-2” in the Complaint, gave NISSEN and his ticket business more than $1.9 million to be used for the bulk purchase of tickets to a UFC fight in New York to be resold by NISSEN. Instead of purchasing tickets, NISSEN used the money as follows: (i) he made two cash withdrawals – one for $20,000 and the other for $23,250; (ii) he transferred $383,000 to the bank account of another company he controlled to bring that company’s account balance out of a negative balance of about $382,000 to a positive balance of about $578; and (iii) he transferred $1,500,050 to his personal bank account, which had a balance of $88 at the time, and then that same day, NISSEN transferred $1,500,025 from his personal account to another victim to whom he owed money.
To further perpetuate his fraudulent scheme and to raise additional sums from victims, NISSEN falsified financial documents and inflated accounts receivable ledgers, which NISSEN presented to certain victims as purported proof that their money was being used to purchase premium tickets for resale.
On May 7, 2017, unable to obtain more financing to continue the scheme through existing or new victims, NISSEN admitted to an executive of Victim-2 that he had been operating a Ponzi scheme. When the CFO of Victim-2 asked NISSEN the next day whether a bank document that NISSEN had previously provided to Victim-2 was forged, NISSEN admitted he had fabricated the bank document. When asked how he had done so, NISSEN replied: “Photoshop. Ever hear of it?”
Two days later, on May 10, 2017, NISSEN told another victim, referred to in the Complaint as “Victim-1,” that he had been committing a fraud and that he had fabricated the income numbers of the Ticket Company that he had been reporting to Victim-1. In total, JASON NISSEN defrauded victims of at least $70 million.
We visited Bernie Madoff in prison. Madoff, a renowned stockbroker turned fraudster, lives in FCI Butner, a medium-security federal correctional institution in North Carolina. Madoff is serving a 150-year prison sentence for orchestrating the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.
Madoff told us: In hindsight, when I look back, it wasn’t as if I couldn’t have said no. It wasn’t like I was being blackmailed into doing something, or that I was afraid of getting caught doing it. I, sort of, you know, I sort of rationalized that what I was doing was OK, that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.
Madoff exhibits several all-too-familiar cognitive biases, psychological tendencies that can lead to irrational behavior. We hear Madoff describe a multitude of common biases. They’re amplified—biases on steroids, in Madoff’s case. But they’re biases that we all have, that we all experience.
Ambition: Madoff describes his ambition, which is something that every person aspiring to be successful in business—can relate to.
Overconfidence: “I built my confidence up to a level where I…felt that…there was nothing that…I couldn’t attain,” Madoff told us. The “slippery slope” that enables a small transgression to grow into a bigger one: “I started to go off the tracks, and I was able to convince myself that this was, you know, a temporary situation,” Madoff said.
Lack of self-control: “I…probably…just didn’t give it enough thought or wasn’t frightened enough…to say to myself, I can’t, you know, I can’t do this, I can’t take the risk,” Madoff told us.
Rationalization of iffy decisions: The piece that’s most humbling in the recording is the realization of rationalization. Madoff recognizes now that it was all rationalization.
Once our readers recognize that this is a smart guy, and he didn’t need to do what he did, but he still did it anyway, there is a degree of humility in the venitism blog. Madoff is an extreme case in many ways, but in other ways, he is just someone who fell prey to biases and the tendency to rationalize.
It’s especially important for budding entrepreneurs to appreciate the link between Madoff’s ambition and his slippery slope to infamy. While Madoff possesses an extraordinary lack of empathy for his victims, he didn’t explicitly set out to commit the crime of the century.
Madoff is respected in prison because it looks like he was the mastermind of this extraordinary plan. But to say that he sat down and planned a two-decade, multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, that’s giving him too much credit as an individual financier, or even as a sinister deviant. He couldn’t have planned such a long-running and extraordinarily devastating fraud in advance even if he tried.
Madoff was once best known for pioneering the controversial but legal practice of payment for order flow, in which he would pay brokerage firms a couple of cents per share to send orders through his firm. This made him popular among investors, who previously had to pay brokers for the service of buying shares; now Madoff had turned the practice upside down and was paying them to trade.
That innovation diverted trading away from the New York Stock Exchange floor, and by the early 1990s, Madoff’s firm was handling upwards of 10 percent of all NYSE-listed stock trading. Outside his brokerage business though, in his growing investment management practice, Madoff started to feel greater strain in generating profits.
He began naked shorting to clients. Another controversial but legal practice, this involved short-selling a stock without first borrowing the security, and then acquiring the security after the sale. But then he started conducting short sales without putting them on the books, which is illegal. Eventually he stopped trading altogether, once he realized he couldn’t generate the profits he continued to promise his investors. A few steps down the slippery slope later, he was running a Ponzi scheme.
“It’s like a comedy of errors,” Madoff told us. “I allowed myself—and I really have to say ‘allowed,’ since no one put a gun to my head—to keep taking in more money. I kept on waiting for the environment to change and of course it never did. It turned into a total fiasco.”
It’s a mundane series of errors, one leading to another, which grew into something of remarkable proportions. Even as famous white-collar criminals go, Madoff is an outlier, both in the size of his crime and in its longevity. But it’s important to appreciate the slippery slope of small crimes often becoming bigger ones, especially in today’s entrepreneurial culture, which tends to accept and even glorify bending the law a little.
Within entrepreneurial cultures, there’s often a feeling that it’s OK to ignore or bend some regulation. Sometimes regulations are legitimately outdated or potentially too restrictive to let innovation flourish. But the challenge for entrepreneurs is that the line between appropriate and illicit is often quite murky.
Case in point, the ride-hailing company Uber, which is thriving in spite of pushing legal boundaries—and fighting its case in court—in cities all over the world. In some places Uber is hailed as a brilliant company, and in other places its executives are convicted criminals. Many well-respected entrepreneurs, from Michael Dell to Steve Jobs, have faced their own allegations of wrongdoing, but still managed to build remarkable enterprises. At the same time, many white-collar criminals also break rules in the process of believing they are on the cusp of doing something great. Navigating the fine line of which regulations might be legitimately broken and which cannot is sometimes difficult. But understanding this distinction is critical for entrepreneurs who want to operate on the most innovative frontiers of business. Entrepreneurs who are trying hard to make their mark often need to be aggressive. This sometimes leads to successful businesses like Uber or Airbnb, and other times it leads to terrible failures like Enron.