Only You Can Prevent White-Collar Crime: A Guest Post

A guest post from Troy Costlow.

Troy Costlow is an MBA student studying Accounting & Finance at DePaul’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business.


I’m frightened in a way I haven’t felt since I was little.

Dr. Kelly Pope is my professor at DePaul/Kellstadt and a regular contributor to this blog.

It’s her fault.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but when I was eight, Smokey the Bear terrified me.  It’s intimidating when a talking bear points his claw directly through the TV into my eight-year-old face and says, “Only you can prevent Forest Fires!” That’s a lot of responsibility for an 8 year old, and my thought back then was, “Why me?? Can’t grown-ups do it? I’m only eight!”

But the responsibility got to me early… and you know what? 

It worked. 

No forest fires from this guy.

Today I’m a kid when it comes to accounting – I’ve really just started, so I’m a blank slate.  Primacy matters; my standards need to be set, and they need to be set high.

Dr. Pope moderated a panel last week through her online class that included Walt Pavlo (MCI/Worldcom), Justin Paperny (GLT/UBS), & Neil Weinberg (Executive Editor at Forbes). (For the record, that’s three different experts from three different states training 38 students – and all of us can stay on our own couch.  Isn’t technology great?)

Walt Pavlo was an insider who stole millions in the MCI/WorldCom accounting scandal.

Justin Paperny worked at Bear Stearns & UBS, stealing millions from GLT.  

Pavlo and Paperny are both white-collar criminals who mortgaged their success and their futures over time via a snowballing series of lapses in judgment.  Today the main purpose of their lives is to serve as a warning sign that forever blinks, “I failed.  Don’t be like me.” 

It’s a terrible career path.

Their message to us newbies was simple:

“Only you can prevent white-collar crime.”

That’s a lot of responsibility for one person, but who else is going to do it? 

Neil Weinberg is the Executive Editor at Forbes.   He studies and writes extensively about white collar crime, and is unquestionably an expert in the field. Weinberg has mountains of evidence showing two things:

  • That the government can’t successfully prevent white-collar crime
  • Companies will often look the other way if what criminals are doing is good for business. 

In the absence of an efficient system, the only people who can prevent white collar crime and corporate fraud are individuals with ethics who act – likely the readers of this blog.

Since becoming a white-collar criminal seems almost accidental or unintentional, here are their suggestions on how to spot the signs early on that you or a colleague is succumbing:

  1. Guard your integrity.

Nobody wakes up in the morning and decides, “Today, I’m going to become a felon.” Integrity erodes slowly and snowballs, and you won’t notice until fear sets in – and by then it’s too late.

  1. Choose your mentors wisely. 

Pavlo and Paperny used co-conspirators to rationalize decisions they knew were wrong. How can you be smart enough to commit fraud and dumb enough to think you won’t get caught? 

Easy:  Get a friend who says, “It’s ok, everyone does it.”

  1. Mind the consequences.

What’s worse than jail?  Getting out.  Jail’s only temporary; being a felon and knowing your family and friends will never trust you again… that’s a lifetime.  So is condemning your future to a self-imposed blacklist that cripples your chances at having a normal or successful life.

When I think about future career paths, you know which one I don’t want?

Wearing the sign that says, “I’m a failure and a felon.  Don’t be like me.”  And knowing that’s likely the best gig I’ll ever get. That would just make it worse.

“Only you can prevent white collar crime.”  Got it.  Internalized.  Done.

The message is so vital that Weinberg skipped an appearance on Cramer’s CNBC show to preach it – and I love that show.  So the panel was a monument to Weinberg’s professionalism.

And in their defense, the fact that Pavlo and Paperny have become warning signs does make them legitimately productive, which is a tremendous leap forward compared to what they could be doing. But even though they are now “successful” authors and speakers, do you think they’d make the same decisions in hindsight?

3 replies
  1. Dr. Kelly Richmond Pope
    Dr. Kelly Richmond Pope says:

    I am so happy to hear that you enjoyed the presentation. The presenters were outstanding and I agree with you—technology is an awesome thing. Only in an only setting could we have had 3 different presenters in 3 different states and 3 different time zones presenting to 38 students. There is definitely an upside to online learning in accounting education.

  2. Ken Biddick
    Ken Biddick says:

    As fm is well aware I preach about affecting change through the newbies. As this student points out becoming corrupted happens slowly over time. What is very difficult to recognize is that bad behavior embedded in the culture of organizations comes in many forms and most are not considered criminal but all the same are corrupt. Being competitve and winning are basic characteristics of our capitalistic system. Doing that with civility, integrity and objectivity is what makes us human and maintains an orderly society.

    As a newbie you have the opportunity to choose with whom and where you will begin your professional career. If you truely wish to maintain the standards and principles you hold today make the effort to find people and organizations that share them. There is still plenty of time for the wrong people to change your view that burning down a few hundred acres has its merits.

  3. David
    David says:

    White collar crime can be very embarassing to the organization that allowed it to occur. I even heard of one case where a guy embezzelled more than 100K from a non-Big 4 CPA firm. Do you think the CPA wanted to prosecute? Not a chance.

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