Fraudsters rebranded­­ ­­—are they just manipulating us again?

Remember  Jeffrey Skilling?

He was the man who made Enron famous for all the wrong reasons.  In 2006 this former chief executive arrived at a courthouse in Texas, for sentencing. He left with 14 years to serve, which a few years later was reduced to 10 years.

Skilling is now expected to leave jail some time during this year, 2017.

When released back into society, what will this notorious ex fraudster do? Given that ex- criminals often complain they cannot even get a job cleaning bathrooms, we can expect Mr Skilling to start on the lecture circuits, in effect cashing in on his notoriety.

For fraudsters like Skilling, a well-trodden route back towards acceptability is re-branding yourself as thoroughly contrite. You repeatedly say you’ve served your time, it was well deserved but now you want to share your bad decisions with others. That way we can learn how “good people do bad things.”

Mr Skilling will have plenty of possible mentors to show him the way.

Take for example the sustained rehabilitation of former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff. His tale of deliberate fraud and deception revolved around lobbying. It is replete with examples of the internal biases and external pressures he says led to his unethical decision-making. Take a look, for instance at this revealing award winning 25-minute documentary on his story 

This video is part of an excellent series on ethics from University of Texas–Ethics Unwrapped–and is worth some of your time. If only to see, in Abramoff’s case how astute, unethical people manage to figure out ways to rebrand themselves.

The documentary doesn’t show this ex lobbyist in prison uniform–contrast for example a former South African Housing Department head while dressed in orange prison fatigues, telling kids that crime does not pay,  

Nor does the documentary baulk at giving him an impressive platform on which to offer his “mea culpa”. We see him at numerous prestigious venues talking about “where I went wrong.”

fraudsters and Abranoff

Rather than wearing a demeaning prison uniform, we see Abramoff post-prison, dressed in impeccable suits, and leaving and arriving for his public performances in a flash limo. We see him smiling and joking over drinks with any number of people who’ve invited him in to do his talk show.

Well, I confess it spooks me. Watching this well-groomed, highly articulate crook—sorry ex-crook—leaves a sour taste in the mouth.


Abramoff’s life’s lesson’s may indeed be salutary for the rest of us. Even entertaining. But is it really desirable to give a platform to convicted felons of serious crimes to tell us about morals, ethics and “doing what’s right”–usually for a hefty fee?

Also, not everyone buys Abramoff’s particular redemption as genuine, regarding his apologies as too little and too late:

“You look at Jack—though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of [Washington] D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”
Former chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin

Having served their time, there has to be some way back for fraudsters into society. And there are lots of obstacles to employing such people. 

“As a convicted felon, I understand the challenges that many face with seeking employment.  I have, in fact, been denied more than one job because of my criminal background (guilty of embezzlement and tax evasion for a crime in 1986/87)
Chuck Gallagher

Gallagher runs a widely read blog and is in demand for lecturing and advice based on his past mistakes. “Today I work with multinational companies primarily in ethics and fraud prevention…”

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued a new set of guidelines concerning the use of criminal background information in employment decisions. Employers cannot automatically exclude from consideration all job applicants with criminal records. That includes applicants with felony convictions.

Based on this, hiring the likes of Abramoff or Gallagher, or soon perhaps Skilling is not illegal. What for instance will Bernie Madoff, currently serving a mere 150-year sentence at the Butner, NC, federal prison for his $65 billion scam, do if he ever gets out? Why, confess it all of course, for the benefit of the rest of us.

Why not? He’s purportedly already had some useful practice at this sort of re-branding. For example he claims he tried to tell people as early as 2005 — three years before he was arrested, that his empire was nothing more than an elaborate pyramid scheme. Seems no one believed him

Or take Walt Pavlo who pleaded guilty in 2001 to wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice, and served a 41-month prison sentence.  While there, an FBI agent sought him out as a speaker on the ramifications of white-collar crime He was  responsible for perhaps the world’s biggest accounting fraud, stealing $6 million when he orchestrated fraud while working at MCI Worldcom.  Now he’s officially named The Visiting Fellow of Fraud at the University of Mississippi.

Like the others, he too rebranded himself as an expert on the issue for which he had ended up in jail. Now Pavlo apparently earns well over $100,000 a year sharing lessons from his crime. He’s even a partner in a consultant firm for “crisis management, media relations and anything that goes wrong in life.”

Pavlo puts across his story like this:

“All of us are capable of such a crime. Nobody is immune. I did it, and you can do it. So let’s be honest from the start and try to have a dialogue about what can happen to anyone in any business. Maybe then we’ll have a chance of preventing the crimes that we read about so often.”

Ball state study2

A somewhat disingenuous claim. In reality not everyone is capable of such a crime. And while Pavlo was tempted to defraud, others in the same situation might not be.

One of the most famous cases of rebranding after an ethical fall, is that of John Profumo. Not a fraudster, but a British politician whose career ended in 1963 after a sexual relationship with the 19-year-old model Christine Keeler that created a serious national security risk.

Following his resignation, Profumo  worked as a volunteer for a charity and became its chief fundraiser. This helped to restore his reputation and he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and becoming its chairman from 1982-85 and then its president.


Fraudsters and rebranding


Youtube of Walter Pavlo lecturing
Walter Pavlo,
In It To Win: The Jack Abramoff Story:
D. Li, Madoff: No one believed me when I tried to come clean, New Post, Feb 2 2017
We Don’t Hire Convicted Felons! Chuck Gallagher blog
A. Roth, John Profumo, Guardian 2006



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