“We do not need to proselytise either by our speech or by our writing. We can only do so really with our lives. Let our lives be open books for all to study.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to graduate students of Brigham Young University’s business school who were studying fraud and ethics. The professor who invited me asked me to share my story and my thoughts on how fraud happens and how good people can get caught up in it. I’ve written about my experience quite a bit, I’ve spoken about it to various audiences quite a lot, but it was a different experience to ponder what to say when my life was an open book for all to study in an academic setting!
Here are some highlights from what I shared. I began by introducing myself with Part One of the 2010 Colorado 9News story by Cheryl Preheim. Then I said, “Well, there you have it. That’s me. I’m Andrea Merriman and I’m here today to talk about what it’s like after almost 20 years of marriage, four children, and what I thought was a wonderful life of world travel, financial prosperity, community and church service to have my life and my world collapse in one unexpected moment, the result of something I never EVER imagined would be a part of my life: FRAUD.
It was the worst nightmare I could never have imagined, only unfortunately, it was very real and sadly, it was now my life. You could title it:
Hold On—I’ve Never Smoked, Tasted Alcohol, Tried Drugs or Cheated in School, This Can’t Be Happening To Me!
No Way! I’m A Cougar Club Member and Have $10 Million In The Bank, I Can’t Be Penniless
I’ve Never Stolen A Thing In my Life, Not Even A Grape From the Grocery Store Without Paying For It
But the reality is titled more like this:
Think and Grow Rich…With A Ponzi Scheme
How To Win Friends and Influence People…Then Spend The Best Years of Your Life Behind Bars
What To Expect When You’re Expecting…5-7 Years and Get More Than The Max
Gone With The Wind…And The U.S. Marshalls
Crime and Punishment
From BYU to Federal Prison in 16 “Easy” Years
In truth, however, it’s much worse. You lose every material thing in your life, you lose the immaterial things like your good name and reputation, your wife, your children, your family and your friends, and then on top of that, you lose your entire life and your freedom, as well.
So what does all of this have to do with you? You may be sitting comfortably in your seats knowing you’re eagle scouts, you practice your religion, you’re at BYU living the honor code… something like this could never happen to you. Twenty-two years ago, I was just like you.
So how does this happen? How did a decent man fall so far? How did he do what he did to himself, to me, to his children, to his family, and to his victims?
I was interviewed by the MSNBC show, ‘American Greed’ recently and they asked basically the same question: How does a Ponzi scheme take place? How does a person get caught up in fraud that results in crime? How does it happen?
One component of fraud is fear—fear of failure, fear of having to tell others you’ve failed, fear of losing your reputation for success by failing at something, fear of loss of job…But I also believe that selfishness, greed and pride are at the heart of it. You can’t commit fraud without them.
I also don’t believe every criminal sets out with the intent to commit a crime. I think there are good people who make a mistake, try to ‘fix it’ and fail and then choose to cover it up as they continue to work to fix it, but it’s too late. The MOMENT you ignore a mistake or attempt to disguise or try to hide even a small error is the moment your fraud begins.
Dieter Uchtdorf taught ‘Small Errors Can Have a Large Impact on Our Lives.’ He related it to airplanes and flight, but I believe it has application in business as well. He said, ‘The difference of a few degrees may seem minor. But even small errors over time can make a dramatic difference. Suppose you were to take off from an airport at the equator, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but your course was off by just one degree. By the time you returned to the same longitude, how far off course would you be? A few miles? A hundred miles? An error of only one degree would put you almost 500 miles off course. Guard against the many little rationalizations, little white lies, misleading statements that are true but maybe not the whole truth, and courageously stay the ethical course.’
Stay on the straight and narrow path professionally and personally. (By the way, I believe ‘narrow path’ is no exaggeration.) It’s a narrow path, and when you start rationalizing and messing with the boundaries of it, you’re quickly into the gray and questionable area. And when you step off the clearly defined track of righteousness, it’s a very slippery and surprisingly short fall to the mists of darkness and impropriety.
In addition to correcting your course immediately and frequently, keep your heart in the right place. Lock your heart against things with no eternal value. Do whatever you need to do to keep your heart and your priorities in the right place in the workplace and in your professional endeavors. It can be pretty heady to go from college poverty making $4.90/hour (what I made when I was at BYU) to after graduation making $18k/month—I know, because that was my experience; that’s what my former husband made as an investment banker right out of college in the days when he was a law abiding citizen, prior to creating his Ponzi scheme.
Check your greed. Because at some point, close to $20k/month wasn’t enough. He had to have more and more and more until he sold out his wife, his children and his soul for money. Don’t make that mistake.
How do you prevent a fall like the one that destroyed my ex-husband? I think Mosiah (in the Book of Mormon) said it best: “But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves and your thoughts and your words and your deeds and observe the commandments of God and continue in the faith of what ye have heard…even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember and perish not.”
I apologize for the seriousness of my comments today, but I not only feel very strongly about the importance of living a life of integrity, I’ve lived through the nightmare that results when a person fails to do that professionally. So here’s my last bit of advice, courtesy of Benjamin Franklin, before you depart, as many of you graduate and go forth not only to serve but to establish your career, demonstrate to the world of business what you’ve been taught, what Brigham Young University is about and what you stand for:
‘Let no pleasure tempt thee, no profit allure thee, no persuasion move thee, to do anything which thou knowest to be evil; so shalt thou always live jollity; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas.’
Your career and the rest of your life will be what you make of it—make them ethical, keep them fraud free and make sure every workday is, as Benjamin Franklin advised, a continual Christmas through your hard work and ethical business decisions. Thank you for letting me share a little bit of my story with you today. My best wishes and good luck to you all in your futures.”
There was a brief question and answer session afterward. As I drove home after it, I was struck by the thought that again, another unexpected experience has been mine. Had anyone told me in March 2009 when my world ended in a moment that three years later I’d not only be blogging about my unexpected life but also speaking to various groups and organizations about it, including Brigham Young University, I would NEVER have believed them!
Life is great, isn’t it? Hard, but full of amazing experiences. Never forget that wonderful blessings and moments are born of adversity, even from those challenges you can’t comprehend surviving much less enduring. I met some great people that day of my BYU speech—sharp college students with their futures ahead of them, children of friends and blog readers from Colorado, a successful businessman, BYU professor Mark Zimbelman and his cute teenage daughter.
Prior to my speech, the businessman asked me if I was nervous or if it was difficult to speak about my experience. No, it isn’t difficult. But here’s what apparently is: ”There are two things that are more difficult than making an after-dinner speech: climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you.” (Winston Churchill)