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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

One who went wrong tries to make amends

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

GRAND RAPIDS, Ohio Ted Wolfram makes no excuses for his crimes in the 1970s and 1980s. They were frauds that destroyed the 85-year-old Toledo brokerage firm Bell & Beckwith and hurt his family, his partners, and many of the firm s 7,000 customers.

There are no reasons for unethical behavior, period, said Wolfram, 74, who was released from federal prison in 1993 after serving 10 years of a 25-year sentence. There are a million excuses but not one reason. I make no excuses for what happened to me. It was my fault entirely.

Wolfram, a Maumee native, tries to get executives who may be facing prison terms to own up to their guilt, and he counsels business students and executives on the need to take the high road in order to avoid white-collar crime and problems for themselves and their employers.

He even tells inmates how to avoid problems in prison, how to deal with loneliness, and how to communicate with family members they may not see for years.

He estimates that he has spoken to as many as 10,000 people in the last 12 years as part of a program begun by a professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Last year, he addressed a class of graduate accounting students at Bowling Green State University, his alma mater, and he likely will appear before a University of Toledo business class soon. He also spoke at a meeting of the young Presidents Organization in Toledo.

Wolfram said he began lecturing on white-collar crime even while finishing up his prison time: He was an inmate at several federal prisons, ending up in a facility near Las Vegas, where some of his family lived.

He recalled flying in a private plane to a gathering of Fortune 500 executives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and on a commercial plane to a business event in Palm Springs, Calif. both times accompanied by a federal official, on trips sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. He added that since his release, he spoke to a group of business people and some members of Congress in Washington.

Wolfram began his fraud in the 1970s, when he was the managing partner of Bell & Beckwith, as a temporary expedient to cover up shortages in another partner s account, to prepare for an audit and forestall possible regulatory problems.

But his borrowings from accounts secured by stock with highly inflated values and forged documents eventually grew to more than $50 million supporting a lifestyle that included ownership of the Landmark Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, a racehorse farm in Florida, farms in Missouri, an oil-exploration company in Louisiana, 17 exotic sports cars, and a $2 million private jet.

I made a decision to do something illegal, immoral, unethical, and it was wrong, he said. Once that ball starts rolling downhill, it can t be stopped.

Wolfram said he agreed to go on the lecture circuit after watching several business-ethics programs at a federal prison in California. He said he believes the program helps prevent white-collar crime. If I had stopped cold, none of this would have happened. If I can do something to keep someone else from making that mistake, I ll try.

Many other perpetrators of frauds have, like Wolfram, tried to make amends. Among them: Michael Milken, the junk-bond king who served 22 months in prison for securities violations and paid a $200 million fine. Since release, he has become known as a philanthropist, founder of a think tank, and a champion of medical research.

Wolfram knows why his crimes escalated: I did it for the money and power. I was the boss; I was important.

And he admits that his deeds show a weakness in character, a flaw he said he is trying to make amends for.

Hardly a day goes by when I don t say a prayer for those I hurt, he said.

His talks on white-collar crime are another way of trying to make amends. I don t want that character flaw to be the only thing I m remembered for, he said.

Contact Homer Brickey at: homerbrickey@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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