Every day criminals share lesson in ethicsThree inmates of the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth shared their stories with business students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior last week. Hedge fund manager Brad Weaver made a quick decision to cover a margin account by moving $22.5 million over from a different account without permission from investors. He is currently serving a 12 ½-year sentence for wire fraud.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Three inmates of the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth shared their stories with business students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior last week.
Hedge fund manager Brad Weaver made a quick decision to cover a margin account by moving $22.5 million over from a different account without permission from investors. He is currently serving a 12 ½-year sentence for wire fraud.
Expert knowledge of his company’s accounting system allowed accountant Nate Mueller to pocket about $9 million. He was sentenced to eight years and one month for mail fraud.
Waiting for funds owed to his mechanical company to be paid, Chad Wetzel was stretched to meet payroll for his employees. So he stopped paying state and federal withholding taxes. He is now serving six years for failure to withhold taxes.
Their message was simple:
“(Fraud) is real; it does happen,” Weaver said. “The slope is real easy to get on in the fast-paced business world.”
Students from Connie O’Brien’s fraud examination and investigations course and Bruce Kibler’s business ethics course were impressed.
“This is like blowing my mind,” Courtney Ellison, a junior accounting major, told Mueller. “You just seem so normal.”
She had a hard time wrapping her mind around the fact the three men in their green prison shirts were criminals.
“It’s just easy to make one mistake and have it escalate,” Ellison said. “It puts into perspective our fraud class and what we learned. It’s just that easy.”
O’Brien’s course teaches students what fraud is, how to investigate it and how to interview suspects. Most people involved in fraud get caught up in their crime, she said, and are good at rationalizing their actions.
“Being able to talk to somebody about it and getting the information you need is a key aspect,” said the accounting lecturer.
Students broke into small groups to talk to the inmates separately, asking them about their crimes, symptoms that could have tipped co-workers off and how they were caught. The students will research the data they were given to determine if it was truthful and look into how that crime could be prevented in the future. They will cap off the experience with a presentation.
“Accounting is a difficult profession,” O’Brien said. “You need to know it’s not your money and you’re just dealing with numbers.”
The educator has worked in the accounting field for 15 years and seen many cases of financial crime. Every company has fraud, she said, although only 10 percent of cases are ever reported.
The prison visit, she said, is important because it makes students aware of how much fraud is out there, how easy it is to go down that road and how detrimental a conviction is to an accountant’s future.
“It takes you out of that line of work,” O’Brien said. “Everything you’ve worked for ends.”
UWS student Stephanie Roth left the prison with new insight.
“Just that average, every day, normal people are able to commit crimes,” she said.
The inmates speak to college students about six times a year and visit area high schools through the youth awareness program.
“They see the benefit of helping others not to fall into the same trap they fell into,” said Jason Gunther, supervisor of education for the prison.
Many roads can lead to a spot behind bars, according to Weaver.
“It’s not if you’re going to be hit with these choices,” Mueller said. “It’s when and what are you going to do about it.”
Regardless of your intentions, Weaver said, there is a right and wrong. And one bad decision can lead to another.
“You take these little steps over the line ‘til you reach the foul line,” he said.
“You definitely don’t want to go down that path,” Mueller said.