Do ex-offenders make good security advisers?

Who do you go to for advice on dealing with security, corruption, bribery or many other aspects of governance? To an ex-crook of course!

Increasingly this is a land of opportunity for those who have defrauded, cheated, or generally done wrong. By offering to tell companies how to avoid being victims of such crimes in the future, they can further expiate past sins.behind_bars_xsmall

There’s nothing wrong with ex-cons finding a new living by turning from poacher to game keeper. In many ways it’s encouraging that ex offenders can actually make some kind of a living from their previous misbehaviour. But it’s hardly a recommended career choice.

Make no mistake, it can be tough being an ex-offender, especially if you have spectacularly betrayed trust through some kind of corporate fraud. Prison Is the last thing most people want on their résumés.

However some ex-cons are using their past record to launch above board careers, talking about their experiences, what they have learned and what they can now teach others about poor personal decision making and failed corporate security systems.

But is there perhaps something a bit worrying about the growing number of these ex offenders now setting themselves up in various guises as security experts? From presenting themselves not merely as apologetic for past errors, but converting their experience into “words of wisdom” how far do they really help those struggling to make governance work in their respective organisations?

One characteristic these past sinners possess in common is the ability to tell a good story. Not so storymuch a false one as highly entertaining. If nothing else, listening or reading about someone who went wrong in the past and what they have learned from the experience makes for good theatre.

“I was guilty as sin. I deserved every minute I was in jail” is how one ex jailbird starts his engaging lecture on corporate fraud.

He claims to earn $200,000 a year giving lectures and one-day training programs since finishing a 4 ½ -year prison term 18 years ago for helping defraud investors of $100 million in the collapse of a carpet-cleaning company. [1]

If you were previously tempted to do wrong you’re certainly something of “an expert” on the environment in which you misbehaved. You may rightly be able to point to the temptations, the “tipping point” at which you felt able to rationalise your bad or illegal behaviour, poor control systems, and the weakness of managers in actually managing risk.

Hackers for example, often turn out to be the best people to identify security flaws and there is now a whole industry of these people offering to show how easily a company’s security system can be compromised.

If you can tell a good story—and ex cons often can do just that—then a juicy trip around the speakers’ circuit may beckon. For example, at The Pros and Cons speaker agency you can hire any one of a nearly a dozen previous offenders who are converting their past record into story telling gold.

Take for example the well known Chuck Gallagher a former felon and corporate executive who stolechuck his clients’ trust funds. Convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion, Gallagher served an 18-month Federal prison sentence then three years of probation.

He has since segued into security advice, issuing a regular and entertaining newsletter. He’ll offer you expertise on fraud, deception and detection methods, insight on choices: negative consequences / positive results and of course ethical decision making and internal controls.

Today Gallagher shares the disastrous consequences that one simple choice can have. He is also widely regarded as a highly entertaining speaker.

There are plenty of others doing much the same, with varying degrees of success. Some like Richard Bistrong, a writer on compliance and anti corruption have gradually re-invented themselves as genuine experts, able to comment in depth on security issues such as systems that positively encourage people to go astray.

The problem with ex-cons telling companies how to avoid employees doing bad things though, is a bit like generals telling us how to avoid war. Often the advice is less relevant to current ways of fighting,—for example how to deploy your cavalry, when the enemy is using tanks.

“It’s kind of interesting to look at them, but it’s also like watching a car wreck,” says Peter J. Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. “You can explain to me your last fender-bender. But am I going to learn from it?” [2]

1 From Time Behind Bars, Business Plans Grow, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 7, 2012
2. See above

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