In an earlier post I suggested that you can likely doubt that most alleged grand conspiracies are real on probability grounds alone, as the number of one-to-one connections requiring “trust against a lie” grows factorially. By the same logic, the smaller the conspiracy, the better the odds of keeping the trust factor intact. In this post I will look at a few examples of factors that “boost the odds” of a small conspiracy holding, and where some small conspiracies might be more rational to believe as real than doubtful.
Organized crime and the maintaining of “trust against the lie.”
In that earlier post I noted how the number of one-to-one relationships in any group of people, given n participants, is (n – 1)! combinations. Five people in a conspiracy all needing to maintain the “trust against the lie” with every other person in the group creates 24 relationships (4 x 3 x 2 x 1). Add just one additional person and you get 120 relationships. If just one relationship breaks down, the “agreement” can collapse.
Literal “family ties” go a long way in keeping these trust relationships intact. I have known several families that have maintained “family secrets” for many years regarding some perceived “sin” in the family’s past or present, such as physical or sexual abuse. But it only takes one relationship to sour and the “family sin” is outed.
Omertà has become the common term for the “code of silence” shared among members of a criminal organization, coming out of the extended-family structure of the Sicilian Mafia. Breaking the familial bond puts one at risk of, at the least, expulsion from “the family,” but sometimes even at risk of death. Adapted across numerous countries and criminal enterprises, especially by Russians both at home and in the United States in recent years, omertà remains one of the most effective “trust maintenance” models in human society, often holding firm for many years against the “probability tide” of betrayal.
Omertà also requires a strong top-down organization, usually headed by a patriarchal “Don” who keeps the trust relationships to a minimum, which is an intuitive, rather than quantitative, understanding of the factorial math, mostly accomplished by keeping his closest kin at the center of the action. Less-direct extended family members are intentionally kept from knowing “more than they need to know” about the family business. Again, this also is an intuitive “reducing of the mathematical odds.”
Organized crime with strong family ties continues to exist in plain sight. A key contributing factor is the lack of effective legal enforcement against criminal family activities. By natural evolution the weak points in the enforcement of laws are found, exploited and repeated.
Money laundering as a “small conspiracy”
You can think of organized crime families as an extreme form of “closely-held business entity,” with the outside business and governmental world usually unaware of the secrets of “the family business.” In modern terms, public corporations are bad ways to do business because of enforced transparency, but many state LLC (limited liability company) laws, especially when linked to overseas “tax havens” like Panama and Bermuda, have evolved to shield “dark money” transactions from oversight.
These business formats also allow for the intermixing of legitimate business money with money that emits a certain “odor,” a scheme that goes back in time to the funneling of “funny money” through classic cash-heavy operations such as taverns. Like Sergeant Schultz in the old Hogan Heroes situation comedy, governments can reap benefits through these business forms while still legitimately claiming “I know nothing!”
The modern form of this mixed-money arrangement is found all too often in real estate investment and sales, which came to the public’s attention most recently in the first Paul Manafort trial. In this case, over $18 million of shady “lobbying money” from Russian interests in the Ukraine was routed through various business entities and then through banks in Cyprus, Great Britain and The Grenadines into American real estate and personal items like Persian rugs. Once in the United States, loans were taken out on the real estate to further “clean” the money. 
This “small conspiracy” required only a handful of people to successfully pull off over a period of six years, and it remained successful for that length of time because of that other “small conspiracy” characteristic mentioned above, the failure of a government to prosecute certain types of violations of the law. At each stage of the cashflow, and in each country, including the United States, there were likely technical violations of banking regulations and tax laws, but “smart money” quickly learns where the weak enforcement points are, greatly improving the odds of success.
“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”  Actually, Paul Manafort would likely have escaped prosecution for these financial crimes had he not gotten himself over-extended and inserted himself in the Trump presidential campaign. As Al Capone learned, it is often not the money laundering and other crimes per se that bring you down, rather it is the failure to declare taxes on your ill-gotten gains, a much easier crime to prove.
And back to the other weak point in conspiracies big and small, Paul Manafort’s long-time Number Two, Rick Gates, broke the bond of “trust against the lie.” It is still really difficult to maintain even small conspiracies over time.
Most sexual indiscretions, my third and last example, involve only two people, and for various reasons, neither party is usually willing to breach the “trust against the lie.” If there are three or more parties with knowledge, with that accompanying “factorial” relationship risk math working against it, some form of omertà typically must come into play, for instance a secretive institutional church or some lawyers bearing non-disclosure agreements and cash. And even then, sexual sin often seems to want to become public on its own accord.
It is difficult to come up with successful “small conspiracy” examples beyond past secret sexual misdeeds and financial shenanigans. Which is perhaps why when the next “pillar of the community,” regardless of political persuasion, gets arrested, the odds are literally in strong favor that the charge will be one of these two, and often both.
And oh yes, this post about small conspiracies of family secrets, sexual misdeeds and funny money really has little to do with the Mafia or Paul Manafort, does it?
- Andrews, Wilson, and Alicia Parlapiano. “How a Federal Inquiry Says Paul Manafort Laundered $18 Million, and How He Spent It.” The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2017.
- A reference to the long-running animated cartoon series Scooby-Doo that first broadcast in 1969.