20 – 15 and 12 Years In Prison – Every Choice Has A Consequence

Every month, for that matter every week, without fail, an indictment or an announcement about a prison sentence makes the news in a dramatic fashion. Now is no different. What is different is a trend that should capture attention – especially to those who might consider the gray area of ethical choices.

The Wall Street Journal reports, “On Monday, former Adelphia Executives John and Timothy Rigas reported to the federal prison in Butner, N.C. John, Adelphia’s founder and his son Timothy, Adelphia’s former chief financial officer, were convicted in 2004 on multiple fraud charges, but had remained free on bail while appealing their convictions. John has been sentenced to 15 years, Timothy 20. Here’s the story from the Washington Post”

Twenty years and fifteen years, count back and ask yourself where you were fifteen and twenty years ago, then think to now. For these men, that’s the time that they will serve in Federal Prison for their actions. For those reading, do no misinterpret my comments, I am not expressing an opinion on the fairness of the sentence or the crimes they committed. That judgment is certainly not up to me. Rather, just think about the consequences from the choices they made.

In the case of the Rigases, the eldest 82 and the youngest 51, they lived lavish lifestyles but will find the end of life dramatically different. Prison is not “club Fed.” There is no club to it. The consequences of their choices mean that, no only does their life change, but the lives of those they touched do as well. Certainly, shareholders of Adelphia (the company they are convicted of defrauding) have suffered financially, but likewise, their families will have their lives changed in unexpected ways.

The elder Rigas is reported to have cancer. What a potentially dramatic end to life to find that one’s death occurs in prison. The likelihood that an 82 year old man will survive 20 years in prison is unlikely. Needless to say, his grandchildren will be affected along with other members of his family.

Likewise the New York Times reports, “Sanjay Kumar, former chief executive of Computer Associates, now known as CA Inc., began serving a 12-year prison term yesterday for his role in a $2.2 billion accounting fraud at the software company. Mr. Kumar, 45, reported to a federal prison in Fairton, N.J., said Mike Truman, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He will serve his sentence at a minimum-security federal prison camp there.

Mr. Kumar pleaded guilty in April 2006, two weeks before his trial was to begin, to charges including conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice stemming from an accounting scandal that cost CA shareholders more than $400 million. When he pleaded guilty, Mr. Kumar admitted that he had improperly booked software license revenue to meet Wall Street profit targets and then lied to investigators about it.”

In my opening I made a comment about the “gray area” of ethical choices. Some would argue that there is no gray. Yet, those in the business community are called upon daily to make decisions regarding business activities that, upon review, could be called into question. Over the years I have seen many restatements of financial information, due to better information, or a change in interpretation. So what is “gray?”

Interesting, but just a week or so ago, I had the privilege of speaking to a group on the subject of ethics (something I enjoy doing – by the way, I’d consider it a privilege to speak to your organization!). But, back to the subject, during that presentation the group was presented with several situations where “ethics” may be called into play. The result was fascinating. Among a group of professed ethical people, there were no clear answers.

So what does that have to do with prison sentences for folks judged to be guilty of various crimes. Perhaps nothing or perhaps everything. From my own experience as an otherwise ethical person, my first venture into clearly unethical behavior didn’t start out as a blatant unethical choice. Rather, I dipped my toe into the “gray area” of ethical decision making thinking that there was no consequence. At first there was none – at least none that I could discern. But, every choice has a consequence.

The Rigases and Kumar are experiencing that today, even as you read these words. They will be counted six times per day. They will be known as a number. They will be fed what the inmates cook at a time dictated. They will be expected to work for some nominal amount per hour (I earned 12 cents per hour). And, they will quickly come to understand being disconnected from society – there only connection being mail and collect calls from pay phones. There life has changed as a result of their choices.

Every choice has a consequence! Do your employees make the best choices for your company – or for themselves? Most organizations are vulnerable to unethical activities at any level. The message, I share as a keynote ethics speaker, crystallizes, for those who hear, the critical importance of making the right choices and the positive results that can follow…a must for those who want to promote individual and organizational integrity in the workplace.

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