Speaker Report: When Crime Pays

Anyone who saw Catch Me If You Can knows just how compelling—even likable—a criminal can be. Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 film, first rose to infamy as a con man before finding success as a speaker following a five-year stint in prison. Although he made the category more popular, Abagnale is by no means the only speaker with a dark past. Former bank robbers, mob bosses, and white-collar criminals dot the speaking circuit, and planners as well as the speakers' representatives say these keynoters bring far more to the lectern than a colorful story—although that doesn't hurt either.

"I think it's refreshing for people to hear, 'You know what? I really messed up in my life. Here's what I did; I want to own up to it and help others to avoid making the same mistakes,' " says Bill Hallock, of Keppler Speakers' corporate division in Arlington, VA. Keppler exclusively represents Abagnale and also reps some of the other speakers SM interviewed. "All we do is hear about people who don't own up to past mistakes; it's good for people to hear from someone who has taken ownership of their mistakes."

The speakers who find success using their criminal pasts as fodder for presentations do so in large part because they have come to terms with their history, have owned up to what they did, and now use those experiences to explain one of three things—the importance of integrity; that it's possible to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles; or why the office politics and interpersonal relationships that bother attendees are not as big a deal as they seem (in fact, they are downright silly compared with prison dynamics).

Beyond simply shaking things up, adding a bit of intrigue to a meeting can be a boon to attendance, as Joe Ellison, CEO of the West Virginia Bankers Association, discovered when he booked former bank robber Troy Evans to speak to his group at The Greenbrier last year. "Typically at The Greenbrier [the attendees] find things to do other than go to the sessions, but the participation was really good," says Ellison, who added that many attendees' spouses also attended Evans' 50-minute presentation out of sheer interest and curiosity.

"There is the 'serial-killer' aspect. None of your [attendees] would do it, but many are fascinated by those who do," says Gary Zeune, founder of The Pros and the Cons, in Powell, OH, a speakers bureau specializing in white-collar crime presentations. Specific to white-collar crimes, he adds, "The most interesting aspect is what makes an otherwise honest person commit a white-collar crime. [It's the] same reason people break the speed limit.White-collar criminals rationalize what they're doing. They talk themselves into it."

Most of the speakers interviewed admitted that some planners are initially reluctant to hire them out of a feeling that people should not profit from past misdeeds, but bureau reps say that planners who avoid speakers with a criminal past are missing out. "Sometimes we do get pushback. A lot of meeting planners, if they only have one meeting a year, want everything to be perfect," says Hallock. "But I think sometimes they do their attendees a disservice by not opening their minds to these types of speakers. Bear in mind, these speakers will really focus on making your meeting the best it can be. They feel like they owe society something, and they are really eager and anxious to get out there and let people know there is life after failure."

And Zeune adds that for many groups, the firsthand knowledge imparted by a former criminal can be priceless. "If a company makes padlocks and wants to find out if a new model is any good, they ask a lock pick.So the information is firsthand," he says.

"Most of the former cons now want to help people to avoid being scammed, robbed, or conned. So it's almost a service element to have them speak—they are righting their wrongs and educating people about the tricks of the trade, and earning an honest living," says Andrea Gold, president of Gold Stars Speakers Bureau in Tucson, AZ, which also represents some of the speakers mentioned here. Gold adds that "A former con would be nuts to mess up his or her speaking business, as it is probably more lucrative (and legal) than the rewards they reaped from their criminal activities in their former lives."

Fraud for Hire
While serving nearly five years at Lompoc Correctional Facility in California for defrauding banks and investors out of some $100 million during the 1980s, Mark Morze joined Toastmasters International and a new, legal, career was born.

"The associate warden called me in and said they had been approached by professors at Pepperdine who thought that there might be an untapped resource of white-collar criminals at Lompoc," says Morze of his first experience as a speaker. Morze and a few fellow white-collar inmates spoke to students about challenges they were likely to face in the real world, and Morze credits his continued success as a speaker in part to the fact that he admitted his guilt.

"Mark has more than a story, he has examples, practical experiences, and a willingness to be open about his mistakes," says Margaret Herriges, communications director for the Montana Society of CPAs. Morze spoke at the group's annual Fraud Conference in September, where one member told Herriges that "he's been to over 30 fraud seminars in the last five years, and that Mark's presentation was hands down the best he's ever attended."

Morze's sessions include common-sense advice that is designed to teach people at every stage of the food chain to keep an eye out for fraud. "Stop looking for accuracy—what I tell you or show you will be accurate, but it might not be truthful," advises Morze. "As I do my lectures, I point out that most of the people involved in my case never asked the follow-up questions—those are the ones that lead to the truth," he says. "In real life, when you're suspicious you ask those follow-up questions all the time"—to a boyfriend who may not really have been bowling last night, or a child who may have taken someone else's toys.

When news of a fraud breaks, "it never says 'the fraud was discovered by the accountants.' In fact, it usually says, 'The accountants were shocked to learn that the information they were given was faulty,' " says Morze. "It always surprises me how savvy people, who graduated from excellent schools, can be so naive.

"Look at a set of facts and ask yourself, 'If this is totally false, what happens?' Do a few pieces of due diligence. I always tell my students 99 percent of what they look into will turn out to be true, but it gives them a track record," Morze says. "They are not required to do any of the things I tell them about, but juries and the public will expect it of them because it's common sense."

Taking Them to the Cleaners
Patrick Kuhse has been a full-time, professional speaker for four years—the same amount of time that he spent as an international fugitive before turning himself in to authorities and beginning his incarceration in Costa Rica. He was transferred to a facility in the United States and began speaking to students while in custody for offenses including money laundering, bribing a public official, and conspiracy.

"I started giving my little 20-minute talk, and I noticed that I got a lot of questions. A light went on: I need to do something when I get out. This is kind of fun, and I have something to say," says Kuhse, who decided to fulfill his post-release community service requirement by speaking about his experience, what he learned from it, and how others can avoid making the same errors in judgment he did.

"All of us are capable of making poor decisions. It's what you do after that separates you," he says. "Once I decided that I did something horrible and I saw the impact that it had on my family, I realized that I can continue on this ugly path or I can redefine myself."

Kuhse still spends much of his time speaking to university students, but has also found a niche speaking to corporate and association meetings as well as working with international groups, helping them to understand the nuances of both law and ethics that make certain actions that are above board elsewhere either illegal or unethical in the United States.

"He was inspiring," says Aggie Asher, co-chair of the Atchison Hospital Ethics Committee, in Atchison, KS, which hosted Kuhse as part of an ethics symposium in October. "It was apparent from his presentation that his decisions took him down a wrong path, and he's trying not to glorify that, but to show people why to not make the same mistakes that he did. He brought a positive message about making the right choices."

Says Kuhse, "I had the American dream, yet I chose to divert my attention and go down the wrong path and every story that I heard—be it [from someone who committed] murder or wire fraud—was the same type of story." In an effort to help keep audiences on the straight and narrow, Kuhse developed a set of eight critical-thinking errors that can derail a career, which he uses during his talks; they include Entitlement, Rationalization, and Seemingly Unimportant Decisions. "It's the 'Yeah, whatever' snap decision—nothing good ever comes from that," he says. "Next thing you know you're in an ethical dilemma."

An Offer He Couldn't Refuse
A former mob captain and a former cop walk into a ballroom. No, it's not a joke; it's the beginning of a keynote by Michael Franzese, once named by Fortune magazine as the 18th biggest Mafia boss in the United States, based on wealth, power, and influence. The former cop is Robert Michaels, who often introduces Franzese; the two teamed up about five years ago, at a time when neither knew the other's background.

Franzese made the unprecedented move of abandoning the Colombo crime family without testifying against other members or accepting government protection. He ended up making a deal to plead guilty to racketeering, and served 10 years in prison. Near the end of his incarceration, Franzese agreed to participate in an antigambling film—an area in which he had particular expertise from his time in the mob. After his release, the film led to speaking engagements with professional athletes, followed by corporate groups who saw a message of encouragement and an ability to change.

"I can always tell the level of interest by how many people in the room stick around and introduce themselves [to the speaker]—he had quite a long line at the end," says Tony Versaci, chairman of the Burger King Celebration! convention for franchisees at which Franzese spoke in 2006. Versaci had no compunction about hiring someone with a past for his group. "The best way I can analogize this is that there are many preachers with dark pasts who've turned their lives around and now help people—this is the same situation," he says. "Be it addiction, or compulsive behavior, or womanizing, or gambling, or whatever—they see the light and they turn their lives around, help other people, and prove that even if you have fallen and made mistakes, you move forward and try to make life better for yourself and your family."

But in a post-Sopranos world, Franzese has come to understand that attendees are as interested in stories of real-life Tonys and Uncle Juniors as they are in learning to change their lives. "I spent seventeen and a half years actively in that life. It's what I lived. I never realized how much of a fascination and an intrigue there is with people around that world. I'm fortunate that I can get people's attention that way and then use it to deliver a message," says Franzese, who considers himself disengaged from the mob since the early 1990s, although organized crime continues to impact his life. "You don't hand in a resignation or anything like that," he says. "I don't live in fear, and people aren't actively coming after me, but I have to be cognizant of the fact that people are un-happy with what I did."

Down the Garden Path
For Pegine Echevarria, her three years as a member of a Bronx, NY, gang was a part of her history, not something to share with audiences during her presentations on empowerment and motivation. But a chance invitation to speak informally following a talk at Mississippi State University gave Echevarria an opportunity to freely discuss her past, and she was startled to discover the impact it had on people.

Echevarria often speaks about sales and leadership now, drawing on her experiences working as an "escorter" for the gang, walking people into situations in which they will be beaten ("Let me tell you, you haven't done sales until you've done that," she says), then extricating herself from the gang and beginning a new life by moving to Spain.

When she returned to the United States at 23, Echevarria received a college degree, a masters in social work in group and organizational development, and worked her way up the corporate ladder, all the while being "fascinated by how people disempower themselves." She began speaking and writing books, with an understanding that her history didn't need top billing to be effective.

"I'm not going to sit there and tell you my whole story, because [audiences] think 'What's the point for me?' " she explains. "If I'm playing on your emotions for you to feel sorry for me, I'm doing the wrong thing. But if people are saying, 'I appreciate your story; it reminds me of when I did this or that,' then I'm doing it right."

She is now sought after by clients such as Verizon, Merrill Lynch, the American Cancer Society, and the United States Navy. "I was thoroughly impressed with Pegine and her energy. Our experience with her was phenomenal," says Sheri Sweere, conference director for the 2007 Minnesota Society for Human Resource Management Conference, at which Echevarria spoke in October. "She's not what I find in a typical keynote speaker," she adds, describing Echevarria as high-energy, personable, welcoming, and down to earth. "I'm hoping we can have her back, if not next year, the following year. She's someone I'd love to have back."

Banking On It
Troy Evans was a standout high school athlete when a move from Phoenix to Colorado Springs, CO, forced him to start over. He quickly fell in with an undesirable crowd, and experimenting with marijuana snowballed into heavy drug use and theft—first from family members, then cars, then banks.

Bank robbers don't fly under the radar for very long; Evans was arrested at the age of 28 and served seven and a half years for his crimes. Prison, he says, "was both the worst thing and the best thing that happened to me. I needed to be hit over the head with the biggest stick out there." Evans made the most of his time in jail, earning two degrees, which were funded in part by grants from the National Speakers Association (NSA).

During his incarceration, Evans got to know many NSA members, and upon his release they helped him develop his skills as a speaker. "They'd take me to the Lions Club or the Rotary Club and have me talk, then tear me to shreds, tell me what I was doing wrong, and make me do it again next week," he says.

That persistence paid off, and Evans is now a highly touted speaker. When the West Virginia Bankers Association's Ellison wanted to hire him to speak at a July 2006 convention, Ellison encountered pushback from people reluctant to "reward" a former bank robber by having him as a speaker, but in the end, "Everyone enjoyed the presentation," Ellison says. "The whole message is how to change your life. His goal is not to get you to rob banks; it's to change your life."

"My message is very much about adapting to change and overcoming adversity. We all have prisons in our lives that can be confining—bad relationships, eating disorders, not meeting sales goals," explains Evans. He adds that he uses people's curiosity about incarceration not to glorify his past, but to explain that he lived in an environment where "I saw a guy get killed over a 69-cent Paper Mate pen. I saw race riots. And this is the environment I thrived in, so maybe your situation—you don't get along with the guy in the cubicle next to you—isn't so bad.