Steven Kunes
Paul Wellman (file)

GREED ISN’T GOOD: I’m fascinated by fast-buck scammers, con artists without consciences, and big-time tax cheats. What makes them tick? Is it sheer greed, a compulsive rip-off mania with overtones of sociopathy, or all of the above?

There are the heartless Ponzi guys who willingly con fellow church members, relatives, charities, and anyone else who’ll buy their scam. And the fraudster doctors ​— ​yes, doctors ​— ​who connive to defraud Uncle Sam of millions with sleazy Medicare schemes. Just last week, a jury convicted a Buena Park physician of submitting phony bills to Medicare and ripping off taxpayers to the tune of nearly $3 million.

Barney Brantingham

Then there are people like my acquaintance Steven Kunes, a once-successful screenwriter. Lying is so ingrained in him that he apparently had no qualms about hustling a Santa Barbara businessman out of $2,600 and telling an elaborate tale to a teen girl I know about how he wrote Harry Potter scripts and could introduce her to her idol, Daniel Radcliffe, and the rest of the Harry Potter movie cast.

A lunch was arranged with Kunes, her parents, and the greatly impressed girl. When she finally learned the truth, dark disillusionment could have tainted her young life, but did he care? Luckily, most high school girls of today have seen enough of life and TV to prepare them for fast-talkers. She was fine.

But he’s a sad case, a screwed-up, apparently heartless guy with a string of failed cons that have been trailing behind him since 1999 like smelly dead rats. What I can’t understand about Kunes is that he never learned the old lesson “Never steal small.”

Professional cons might rake in millions and live in luxury until they’re finally caught and end up behind bars (or not). But Kunes is a penny-ante cheat who goes from one court scrape to another. Look at his last caper. Facing prison last year on the $2,600 scam and for around $7,000 in rubber checks, he skipped out on bail and went to the East Coast, where he was easily traced and arrested. What was he thinking? Sentenced to four years in prison, he was then allowed to serve his time in the county jail but released due to its overcrowding with a GPS device buckled to his ankle. What did he do? He cut it off last August and mailed it to the Sheriff’s Department. He just hung around town until a bartender spotted him at a Carpinteria bar recently.

According to a Better Business Bureau article called “The Psychology of the Scam,” “First and foremost, most career con men are sociopaths. They are self-absorbed and believe that anything they say and do justifies a positive outcome for themselves.

“They can’t imagine or don’t care about the consequences their actions have for the people they hurt.”

I have a fistful of other scams prosecuted by the feds in Southern California just since the first of the year. A Diamond Bar man pleaded guilty to charges that he defrauded investors of millions, telling them that he was generating fantastic profits through his day-trading scheme. He issued false statements assuring them of his profits while he spent $15 million on himself and his family. Actually, his trading lost more than $15 million, and, when the Ponzi scheme collapsed, his victims lost $31 million. Feds seized his Mercedes-Benz, his diamonds and other gems, and his mansion, and he agreed to pay $5 million in unpaid taxes.

LICORICE-STICK MAN: In a reminder of the big band days of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, young Spanish clarinetist José Franch-Ballester treated the Camerata Pacifica audience Friday night to lovely tones. I want to hear more from this guy.

PRESENT LAUGHTER: From the super-stylish set to the costuming ​— ​the women’s sleek business attire and the men’s double-breasted suits ​— ​the Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College does a bang-up job on Noel Coward’s evergreen comedy Present Laughter. Arthur Hanket is over-the-top as the famous actor (the late Coward in disguise) harassed by amorous women and a nutty playwright. Santa Barbara High grad and City College student Katherine Bottoms continues her family’s acting traditions as the idol-worshipping debutante. It shows through March 23.


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