Pour yourself a cup of coffee, because this is quite a read.
Who’s more despicable: a thief who robs a 7-11 at gunpoint, or Elizabeth Holmes, the former billionaire (on paper) accused of perpetrating a massive fraud with her blood-testing company, Theranos?
It may be easier for the armed robber to be forgiven than Holmes. He wasn’t born and raised in an environment of privilege. She had everything.
There are several programs helping “blue-collar” ex-felons find jobs and start life over after prison, but there are no such programs for white-collar ex-cons. (“White collar” traditionally describes a nonviolent crime involving financial fraud.)
“You had your chance and you blew it,” says Mike Neubig, a former CEO convicted of lying to investors. He’s struggled to find steady work, and he realizes that most people couldn’t care less. He says their message is, “We don’t have sympathy,” but he asks, “How long do you want us punished?”
Even in a tight labor market, where accountants in particular are in high demand, few companies will take a risk on someone who’s broken trust in the past.
There are tens of thousands of highly skilled men and women who’ve done their time and need to go back to work. They’re testing different interview strategies. Some succeed, some don’t, and now some of these former inmates are leaning on each other. “White-collar guys are smart,” one told me.
Meet three men who explain what they did wrong, what's next, and what you need to know if you ever end up in prison.
THE HIGH-PROFILE AUDITOR CAUGHT IN AN FBI STING
I was surprised several months ago when Scott London reached out to me on LinkedIn with a nice message about an online forum I moderated. Surprised, because the last time we saw each other was in 2013, when I was chasing Scott around a federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles after he was arrested by the FBI.
But Scott London is a nice guy.
A nice guy who broke the law.
Scott was a senior partner in the Los Angeles office of auditing giant KMPG. He gave a friend, Brian Shaw, insider information on a couple of companies, and Shaw used that information to trade shares and make about $1.6 million.
“I gave him a series of tips over 10, 12 months,” Scott admits. He says he crossed the line from legal to illegal slowly, after listening for months as Shaw explained how his business was struggling. Scott says he had no idea that Shaw would use the information to make such huge gains. “I thought he was going to trade and make $10,000, $20,000.”
Still, “The facts were that I gave him that information,” and in exchange, Scott received money and gifts worth between $50,000–$70,000.
But the suspiciously timed trades netting a whopping $1.6 million got the attention of law enforcement.
The FBI contacted Brian Shaw, and he agreed to set up his friend in a sting, meeting Scott in a parking lot and passing him an envelope filled with $5,000 (money provided by the FBI). This gave the feds the evidence they needed to bring a case.
When federal agents showed up at Scott London’s door, they pulled out the photo of him taking the cash. “I did it,” he told them on the spot, admitting everything.
Scott pled guilty to insider trading in July of 2013, and he spoke to me that day outside the courthouse.
He spent a year in federal prison.
THE FIRST NIGHT IN PRISON
When we met again recently for this newsletter, Scott told me that when he first went to prison, he was sent to the same facility housing Brian Shaw. He says prison officials were concerned about having both of these ex-friends in the same place, so Scott was immediately put in the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), the Special Housing Unit, aka solitary confinement.
Nobody told Scott why he was going to solitary or how long he’d stay. “It was the worst period of time in my life.” He had no access to a phone for a week, and he spent 23 hours a day in a small cell. “There are people screaming in there.”
He was there for 30 days.
Then he was moved to the general prison population at a federal facility in Lompoc, California, where he spent most of his days doing landscape maintenance at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“There’s a feeling I used to have daily: ‘How could I be so stupid and do something like this?’,” he tells me. Fortunately, Scott’s family survived on savings and his wife’s income.
Shortly after his release from prison, he reached out to a friend who ran a tech company. “I said, ‘I don’t care what I do.’” The CEO took a chance on him, even though hiring a high-profile ex-felon caused some “awkward conversations” at the company.
Within a few months, Scott was promoted to Chief Operating Officer.
He realizes that his success after prison is very unusual. Scott thinks the main reason he was able to bounce back is because he never denied the charges. Not to the FBI. Not to his friends.
“I had more people advising me, ‘Deny, deny, deny, there’s no evidence.’” But Scott thinks being honest saved his career. “That builds credibility amongst the community you live in.” It’s something he talks about in ethics training for aspiring accountants.
Still, he knows he’ll never again be a top manager at a top accounting firm.
“I don’t think there’s any way that anybody who committed a white-collar crime can go back to the industry they were in,” he says.
THE EDUCATION CEO
Mike Neubig used to worry that a potential employer would find out about his criminal record. Now he writes about it openly on a blog.
Mike was the youngest of five children in a poor household. “I felt invisible.” He was also the first to go to college, where a professor was impressed with his writing. “Nobody ever told me I was smart before.” That sparked an interest in education: “I wanted to give back and try to impact the type of kids that I was, that were kind of invisible.”
Then things went south.
He lied to investors about how well the company was doing.
“I think that investors make the assumption that you are ready to handle sudden success, hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says.
His board fired him.
Then one day two years later when he was home alone, the doorbell rang.
“I peeked out and I thought I saw the sleeve of a policeman’s uniform,” Mike recalls. “I’d never had anything besides a speeding ticket in my lifetime, and my heart started pounding.”
He went to open the garage door to see if anyone was in the back. “There was a bunch of police cars out there, and they came underneath the garage door and said they had a warrant for my arrest and to put my hands behind my back, and I was just in shock.”
Soon everyone heard the news. His wife's prayer group found out. So did the parents of the football team he helped coach. “People looked at me like I had the plague.”
Mike reached a deal to plead guilty to five felony counts of theft and unauthorized use of property. He received a suspended prison sentence, spent a total of four weeks in jail, and was ordered to pay $2.3 million in restitution. He pays what restitution he can, based on his income.
Which isn’t much.
Unlike Scott London, Mike Neubig has struggled to find a job. His story is more common. As soon as an employer does a background check, it’s all over. Google “Mike Neubig” and see what pops up.
Every time he lands an interview, he tries to figure out when to reveal his past. Sometimes he mentions it right off the top; sometimes during a second interview (but only halfway through, “so that you can finish the interview with reminding them how great you are”); sometimes he waits until after he receives a conditional offer of employment.
None of it’s worked out, even when he’s been told he’s the perfect candidate. Mike has been fired from two jobs after managers discovered his record, and he’s had three offer letters revoked. “Once they know, they don’t want anything to do with me,” he says. “How do you build trust again?”
Even entry-level custodial jobs may be off-limits. “Can you trust the white-collar ex-felon late at night alone in an office?”
THE $140,000 JOB
Here’s one particularly painful example. Mike says he landed a job in San Francisco after his indictment but before his conviction. It was a great job, paying $140,000, and somehow he passed the background check (obviously no one Googled him). He started working, and then he flew to New York for a week of training.
Two days in, his boss calls a meeting. “I start to show him my computer and all the things I’ve done, and I look up, and the lady from HR is on the screen.” The boss revealed they’d learned about his indictment and demanded he immediately hand over the computer. “The lady on the screen says, ‘Tell us a little bit about what happened,’” he says, “but they had already taken my computer.” (I reached out to the company and the boss, but I never got a reply.)
Mike is no longer running from his record. “It’s all over my LinkedIn page.” He thinks it’s important to be public about his past and to share what he’s learned. “As my therapist said, ‘You have to rebuild your whole identity at age 50.’”
He's even started to get a little work. Newsflash: Just last week, Mike landed a contract to be a marketing director. The company knows his background and hired him anyway. “It’s really brought me self-esteem I haven’t had in a long time.”
Despite everything, he says the experience made him a better man. And his wife and daughters stuck with him.
“It was awful, but I wouldn’t trade it. It’s created the person I am now.”
THE LAWYER TURNED PREACHER
Jeff Grant was a very successful lawyer in New York who became addicted to prescription opioids after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon. He started stealing money from clients. Then to save his business after 9/11, he applied for a Small Business Administration loan, falsely claiming his office was a block from Ground Zero. “It was a stupid, crazy thing to do.”
He received $247,000.
In July of 2002, when it became clear he’d committed fraud, he surrendered his law license. “I tried to kill myself that night with an overdose of prescription opioids.”
Friends came to the rescue and drove him to rehab. Jeff became sober. Then, nearly two years later, “I got a call from two federal agents to tell me that there was a warrant out for my arrest in connection with the misrepresentations I made on the 9/11 loan.”
He turned himself in and pled guilty. “All I wanted to do was accept responsibility and pay my debt and move forward.”
In 2006 he went to prison for over a year.
Jeff was sent to a correctional institute in Pennsylvania, where he says there were “five stockbrokers, two former doctors and one former lawyer — that was me — and about 1,500 drug dealers.” (More on lessons he learned in prison below... wow!)
When Jeff got out of prison, his life was a mess. “I didn’t have a job. My family was in disarray.” He was still in recovery, though, and went to court-managed drug and alcohol counseling several times a week. A counselor advised him to begin re-establishing his reputation by doing volunteer work. That led to some paid positions.
In 2009 he decided to go to seminary, even though he’d been raised Jewish. He received a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary and started working in churches.
He started Progressive Prison Ministries in 2014 to specifically provide emotional and spiritual support to white-collar criminals and their families. The group holds virtual meetings every Monday night, and everyone from ex-cons to people awaiting trial call in. “We give them hope and some guidance on how to move forward,” Jeff explains. While the program is “spiritually oriented,” it is non-denominational. “We serve people of all faiths or no faith whatsoever.”
The group includes former CEOs, captains of industry, a former local sheriff and a discredited ex-district attorney. Many of them share their stories on Jeff’s podcast, White Collar Week.
“This is hard work, Jane. This is like therapy on steroids.”
Time for their advice...
HOW TO SURVIVE PRISON
— If you’re going to prison, memorize important phone numbers or have them mailed to you inside. Nobody remembers phone numbers anymore.
— Tell visitors not to handle any cash ahead of a visit, because there may be drug residue on it.
“The single most important thing to know about going to prison is to show respect and be able to receive respect,” says Jeff Grant, who adds that respect is mostly demonstrated by “keeping your mouth shut.” People who ask a lot of questions are suspected of being rats.
Prison has a lot of rules which are not intuitive at first. “It’s like being on a plane and landing in Manchuria,” he says. “You can get off the plane, but you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the customs, you don’t know the culture, you don’t have the money.”
For example, on his third day in prison, Jeff went over to a weight stack to bench press. It was very early in the morning, and nobody was working out.
“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘Are you planning on using that equipment?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’” The guy told Jeff, “When you’re done, come talk to me.” Jeff said he was so freaked out, he did one bench press before going back to talk to the guy, who suggested Jeff talk to his “cellie,” his cellmate.
When Jeff asked his “cellie” what the deal was, the cellmate told Jeff the man who spoke to him “owns” the weight equipment during that part of the day. “You don’t want to know how he acquired it,” the cellmate told him. “If you want to use that equipment during that time of day, you’ve got to pay him for it.”
Jeff asked why the guy didn’t just tell him that. “He doesn’t know you,” his cellmate said. “He doesn’t know if you’re a rat.” White-collar inmates are generally older and often white, as is Jeff, and that can make other inmates suspect them of being prison plants.
Jeff began to walk the track around the prison yard, 10 miles a day. “After about three months, a ‘shot caller’ came up,” he says, referring to the head of a gang. “He said to me, ‘I hear you can be trusted.’” Jeff knew by now not to speak. “So I just nodded my head, and he said, ‘All right, then.’”
The next day other inmates suddenly started talking to Jeff, the former lawyer, and asking for legal advice. He ended up helping many of them with divorces and bankruptcies.
Scott London paid a consultant a few hundred dollars to get advice before starting his prison sentence. “Turns out [the advice] was mostly wrong.”
Here’s what he learned on his own about prison.
“You can’t trust anybody, you can’t trust what people tell you, you have to look out for yourself.” Scott says there will be inmates who want to get you in trouble. At the same time, “Don’t treat people poorly.”
He says the first couple of weeks were a process of learning the rules, such as, “This thing is only for coffee. Don’t wash your hands in that sink.”
Then came the occasional challenges, “where somebody is exerting their influence.” Scott says you can react in one of three ways:
Cowering — “From that time on, they would kind of own you throughout your stay.”
Defiant — “You just go over the top and try and be aggressive with them.”
Something in-between — “Hold your ground and say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I’m here to do my thing, you’re here doing your thing.’”
Scott chose the last strategy. “In the end, I made some reasonable friends there that I spent most of my time with.” Finding such people helped the time go by. “If you were just trying to be a loner, and you isolate yourself, it’s going to be very, very difficult to get through.”
AND AFTER PRISON?
There are “Fair Chance Employers” who are willing to hire someone with a criminal record to reduce recidivism rates, but Mike Neubig says they focus on blue-collar ex-felons, not people like him.
In California, the 2018 Fair Chance Act bans employers from doing a criminal background check until a conditional offer has been made. The offer can only be rescinded after “considering the nature and gravity of the criminal history, the time that has passed since the conviction, and the nature of the job you are seeking.”
It doesn’t take much to convince a company to rescind an offer to someone who previously committed fraud.
So Mike says he’s found value in volunteering with the youth ministry at his church, and with Jeff Grant’s Progressive Prison Ministries. “Find a support group,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to admit what you did… otherwise the shame will just kill you. It still does at times.”
Scott London says white-collar ex-cons need to leverage the skills they have and reinvent themselves in a career different from the one they had.
He also has two pieces advice for staying out of trouble in the first place. First, don’t make critical work decisions when you’re vulnerable. “You might be going through a divorce, you might have financial issues.” This could put you in the wrong frame of mind to make moral and ethical choices.
Second, “If you are about to go over the line… think about the people in your life.” Those people will suffer greatly. “My son came home from school one day, and there was a news truck sitting outside, and he had no idea what was going on.” If Scott had that image in his mind before he broke the law, he says he wouldn’t have broken the law.
Jeff Grant has done what seemed impossible and won back his law license. Even some of his old clients from 20 years ago have come back.
This gives him hope.
“We’re now hopefully being regarded not so much as castoffs anymore,” he says, “but more as people who’ve gone through some difficult challenges, albeit mostly by our own hand, and who have a right to recover, have a right to a second life.”
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