Spokane, Washington State’s second largest city after Seattle, is such a perfect setting for the saga of Rachel Dolezal. She’s the local NAACP chapter president who just left her position amid claims she falsified her racial background as well as hate mail she received. The long recorded history of the Spokane area is so full of sharpies trying to pull fast ones on innocents that Forbes in 2009 published a full-blown story calling the town the “Fraud Capital Of America.”
I was the writer of that article, published two years before becoming New To Seattle and taking up residence a mere 280 miles west of Spokane. I also was the author of two earlier lists published in the magazine recounting even more of the many scams that has given Spokane, shall we say, a special aura. The headline over the first list–way back in 2002–was “Probably Not Mentioned In Chamber Of Commerce Literature.” The second, published in 2006: “The Spokane Hustle Continues.”
All this deception and other questionable conduct took place in a metro area that, although the most populous between Minneapolis and Seattle, until recently had fewer than 500,000 residents. That’s a pretty small population base for so much smelly stuff.
Allow me to rehash some of this simply delectable material.
Spokane is an Indian word meaning “children of the sun,” although, as I wrote in 2009, “children of the scam” seemed equally fitting. Gringos started exploring the area in the early 1830s. The region really started popping with gold and silver finds in the 1880s and 1890s and arrival of three railroads–along with early efforts to separate the unwary from their money. Founded in 1897, the Spokane Stock Exchange quickly specialized in questionable mining companies. It was the U.S.’s last remaining regional exchange devoted to dodgy penny stocks when it was closed in 1991 amid pressure from federal regulators.
Perhaps because of its remoteness between the Rockies and the Cascades, its proximity to the Canadian border (for a quick get-away if necessary) and a supposed culture of rugged individualism, Spokane became a go-to place for the unscrupulous. There was the local fellow who swindled an Idaho Indian tribe out of $100,000 in gambling profits. The woman who defrauded the local Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter. Used car dealers accused of rolling back odometers. The hustler selling useless anti-spyware software.
The collapse of a $2.3 billion Spokane conglomerate due to accounting fraud that sent an executive to prison. Ponzi artists. Regular filings in Spokane federal court by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission alleging fraud by local companies and individuals. Assorted Spokane lawyers and accountants specializing in working for checkered public companies, not only around Spokane but elsewhere.
The couple who went to jail for running a massive phony-diploma mill selling 10,000 college degrees to buyers in 131 countries, including law enforcement personnel in the U.S. A $31 million parking garage bond hustle orchestrated by the Cowles family, which owns the local daily newspaper and NBC TV affiliate, and covered up the dirt.
Aside, perhaps, from NAACP donors who feel duped, the Rachel Dolezal scandal doesn’t seem to have the significant economic component of the cases I wrote about. But then there was this passage in my 2009 story:
One thing seems to distinguish Spokane con men from those in Salt Lake City, which likewise shuttered its penny stock exchange and has retained its reputation for chicanery. Spokane’s seem to have fewer compunctions about preying on locals. Thus, convicted con man John E. Petersen was returned to prison for stealing from his 95-year-old aunt. Authorities warned about one man soliciting door-to-door for a kids charity but pocketing the proceeds. Suspected embezzlements hit Spokane’s Meals on Wheels charity and an area ad agency.
“Preying on locals.” Now that seems to be the moral of the tale of Rachel Dolezal. She’s now a national story. But in the underbelly of Spokane, Dolezal fit right in.
If you enjoy bagging on Spokane’s people, you should sniff out the Sheriff. Lots of good stuff there. But watch out, he will shout back.
Thanks to comment areas like this on the Internet, anyone can “shout back.” For me, Spokane has been the gift that keeps on giving.
Kevin, thanks. Some stories just write themselves.
When the story first broke, I remembered your story and said “Bill will get a kick out of this”. Well done, Mr. Barrett.