True Justice Eludes Victims of Hoffenberg the Untouchable

Former Post Publisher Scammed Many Who Will Never Get Their Money Back

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It's still considered unsportsmanlike to kick a guy when he's down. It's un-American. Not gentlemanly. Not quite the thing to do.

Unless the guy flat on his back is Steven Hoffenberg.

Then no holds are barred. You can do a Dennis Rodman. Emulate Albert Belle. Ape Fritzi Zivic and Al "Bummy" Davis (remember them?). When it comes to punishing Hoffenberg, anything goes.

If you don't know who Steve Hoffenberg is, congratulations. It does you credit. We have many bums in New York, some of them with entertainment value, so it is marginally OK to nod hello or be seen in the same bar.

Hoffenberg is an untouchable. Not in the Kevin Costner version but in the original Hindu sense.

With this guy, you wear rubber gloves. Not that you're likely to brush against him for the next 20 years. He'll be doing time (I hope it's hard) in a federal prison (which is good, since parole has been abolished in such federal cases) for securities fraud. He had earlier pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and obstruction and has already served about a year.

And who is this creep? Well, for a brief time he was publisher of The New York Post, the longest continually published daily paper in America and one that was founded by Alexander Hamilton (shortly before he was shot by Aaron Burr, not for anything his editorial page might have said about Aaron, but about other frictions between the two gents).

Hoffenberg's defense in the securities case was that he was nuts. Lots of people said that when he took over the Post, but never mind.

What this guy did was use his bill-collecting company, Towers Financial Corp., to mount a Ponzi or pyramid scheme which gulled investors, large and very small indeed, to send in the cash, often their life savings, in hopes of either getting rich or paving the way to a comfortable retirement.

And for a time he got away with it. I first wrote critically of Hoffenberg at the time of the Post comedy, calling him a buffoon. I didn't know about the thievery as yet. And a woman I met who sold advertising space chided me. Steve Hoffenberg, she said, bought a lot of ad space, and what was I doing abusing the poor man. As I always do, I felt momentarily guilty. Had I maybe been unfair? Those guilts have long since vanished, I assure you.

The advertising saleswoman was hardly the only one Hoffenberg fooled. In 1987 he was taken seriously enough that his bid to purchase Pan American Airways made headlines. What no one knew then was that he was using stolen bonds as his earnest money. Previously, in 1971, he actually pleaded guilty to attempted grand larceny in a typically complicated deal. Said The New York Times, Hoffenberg "tried to steal a ring by asking a jeweler to take it to an appraiser; on the way the jeweler was robbed by an accomplice."

On sentencing him last week, federal Judge Robert Sweet said, "Ambition, when it operates outside the order of society and wreaks havoc on innocent lives, must be punished." The "whole spectrum of America" had been victimized, he said. "There has been tremendous suffering here."

Those quotes from Judge Sweet, poetically just, appeared in the pages of Post, the daily newspaper Hoffenberg briefly owned and about which he preened endlessly and yammered on about the First Amendment and freedom of the press and defending the little people, blah blah blah.

The guy makes you want to throw up.

The judge also fined Hoffenberg and ordered him to repay $462 million to those he'd bilked. That would be fine if Hoffenberg had any millions left. Considering the dough he spent paying off the earliest investors (the only ones who ever get out free in a pyramid scheme) and buying jets, a yacht, antiques, cars and paying for college, he's now said to be stoney.

That is small consolation to the little old retired lady in Roseville, Calif., who's had to go back to work at the Burger King because her savings are gone. Or the maintenance foreman at Armstrong Tire who lost $159,000 in his IRA and another account with Towers and now wonders aloud about all that overtime he worked to make the money. "I thought I would have much more time [with the family] when I retired. But I guess not." Or the small-town hospital in Colorado that invested 200 grand. Their cancer care center's lack of funding has delayed its opening. Or the couple in Redwood, Calif., whose 13-year marriage broke up in bickering over their losses.

With Hoffenberg, is hard time enough? Or do we bring back the rack and the

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