The Sting--the art of the big con

John J. Hopkins May 6, 2007, 5:00am

Reuniting the Paul Newman-Robert Redford team of "Butch Cassidy" fame, George Roy Hill's 1973 dramedy--part drama, part comedy--"The Sting" was a huge critical and commercial success, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Director.

It tells the story of Depression-era Chicago con artists Henry Gondoff (Newman) and protege Johnny Hooker (Redford) and their scheme to fleece a wealthy gangster by way of a supposedly crooked off-track betting parlor staffed by an army of veteran grifters and shadowy characters.

The movie featured the Scott Joplin-ragtime score, and is always fun to watch even if you know the surprise ending, and even if you know better than to "place it on Lucky Dan."

Motivated by revenge, sparked by the murder of a close friend, Hooker brings Gondoff in as mentor, to teach him the "Art of the Big Con," the lie deliberately and elaborately told with conviction, repeated with enthusiasm, designed to cheat the victim--called the mark--out of substantial cash.

The plan worked to perfection in the fiction of Hollywood, but has a real life rival right here in the land of Lincoln, one that for sheer audacity would make Henry Gondoff blush.

Our friends at the Chamber of Commerce, allied with the Illinois Civil Injustice League, have mastered the Art of the Big Con. Their current mark is none other than the people of the State of Illinois.

They scheme an attack on two pieces of remedial legislation, both designed to close the gap of inequity existing in current law and replace it with fairness and justice. With deceptive and purposefully false advertising, the con job is brilliantly simple.

SB1296 and HB1798, proposals backed by a consortium of consumer and public interest groups, have been falsely branded as the creation of the dreaded "Trial Lawyers."

The conspiratorial brilliance lies in the lie, boldly and loudly told about the authors of the bills, banking on a guilt by association defeat, a guilt generated by the negative image incessantly promoted by the conspirators themselves, the truth notwithstanding.

SB1296 seeks only to codify the existing case law on the long-standing, universally accepted legal principle of joint and several liability, a concept already in Illinois--and every other state--and not a novel invention by the tort lawyers lobby.

The hysteria about losing the farm after a drunk driver causes a disaster is pure propaganda, but its allergy to the truth remains well hidden. If SB1296 is defeated--its status as of this writing being unknown--then the con has worked, and the people will be cheated out of a substantial right.

Even more egregious is the assault on HB1798, the House generated bill seeking only fairness for the families of love ones prematurely taken by the negligence of others.

In very simple language, it authorizes the award for damages in a wrongful death claim for "grief, sorrow, and the mental suffering of the next of kin of a deceased."

Designed to compensate the family for the death of a child, a parent or a spouse not employed outside the home, it recognizes the reality that man does not live on bread alone, that the loss to a widow, to the adult children of a father or mother, or worst of all, the parents of a dead child, while non-existent monetarily, is nothing short of devastating emotionally.

Damages for grief, sorrow or emotional loss are the clear and direct result of any death, yet under current law, they are barred from consideration. Surely this inequity cries out for a remedy. Only the con artists of Commerce stand in its way.

Not surprising, one special interest group vocal in its opposition to both bills is the medical lobby. Not content with the gift from Governor Rod, they seek to limit damages already capped by law.

Their silence will be purchased only when total immunity for medical mistakes is declared. When such a day comes, and it is only a matter of time, it will be too late, as the ultimate con will have already been worked, and the con men are long gone.

On a final, but perhaps related note, Tuesday May 1 was Law Day in the United States. It is a day when, in contrast to the bastions of Communism--Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, San Franciso--Americans pause, if ever so slightly, to acknowledge the power of, not right through might, but right through law.

The Madison County Bar Association, with its annual Law Day luncheon carried forth the national theme of "Liberty Under Law: Empowering Youth, Ensuring Democracy" by honoring high school student essayists who opined about the innerworkings of the Internet and the First Amendment.

In addition to presenting the annual Liberty Bell award to the top juvenile probation officer in Madison County, the Bar also applauded their own. Hundreds of hours of free legal work are donated to the Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Society by dozens of Madison County lawyers.

Public education projects like the "People's Law School" and classroom lectures in various area grade- and high schools, together with the time spent on community projects such as "Christmas in April"--a Habitat for Humanity-like undertaking--were justifiably saluted.

These activities are more often than not purposefully under the radar and out of public view, enabling the negative stereotype to feed and perpetuate.

It is a public relations mistake, that should be corrected, as humility and silence, not often the traits of attorneys, only allows the deceit to continue unchecked. In the end, the Big Con continues.

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