In the corporate world, it is taxing to walk the line while fixated on the bottom line.
Before Walter Pavlo saw he had crossed the line of corruption, he was already too astray to escape his $6 million crime.
After two years in prison, Pavlo now travels the country, pleading with tomorrow’s business leaders to grasp how easy it is to find oneself in the world of white-collar crime. He will speak at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the USF College of Business.
“It starts with a small decision that incrementally got worse and worse,” he said. “You tell yourself your intentions are good at first, but then you find yourself in a place you don’t recognize — it’s tough to get back.”
Like his intentions, Pavlo said his life didn’t start out crooked. Though his grades were mediocre, he said he was an honest student.
“I worked hard,” he said. “I probably got a little bit over my head, but I never cheated.”
With a master’s in finance from Mercer, he said he felt ready to enter MCI Communications as a senior manager.
But Pavlo found himself warping under the pressure of monthly quotas, his failure written on the spreadsheet. So he cheated.
“Everyone was getting ahead and getting rich except for me,” he said. “I felt underpaid, under appreciated and forced to do things I didn’t want to do.”
Pavlo said some of his colleagues felt the same way, so they took advantage of MCI’s lax accounting standards and smudged the numbers of poor-performing clients.
Though intended to boost worth in the eyes of the company, he said the feeling of invincibility became a blinder in a race that would soon go far off track.
“You can convince yourself very easily that it’s OK, it not hurting anyone and there’s no consequence,” he said. “In that sort of vacuum, you make some really poor decisions.”
Over the course of six months, Pavlo and his colleagues siphoned $6 million from their clients to Cayman Island bank accounts.
“I felt excited winning the dirty battle that it is,” he said. “Once I got into it, I realized I was wrong — I was totally wrong.”
Yet an audit doesn’t care if a thief feels sorry. Pavlo left MCI once inspectors started sniffing around, but the FBI followed.
Pavlo confessed and waited to enter prison, four full years after he was caught.
“The reflection part was long before I went into prison,” he said. “Prison was a time of recovery.”
Spending the next two years mostly in a South Carolina prison, Pavlo got to know some of the 500 other inmates. He said time went by quickly; he spent his sentence teaching other inmates to read and socializing with the general population.
“The group I hung out with read the Wall Street Journal and watched the news,” he said. “Some were white-collar guys, some were there for drugs. It didn’t really matter.”
Though prison wasn’t as bad as most imagine, Pavlo said he couldn’t escape the dread of what would happen after time served. It is difficult to get a job, much less a corporate one, with fraud on your resume.
“I can’t run from my record,” he said. “If I tried to cover it up, people could just Google me.”
And then the FBI came knocking on his cell door, but with an opportunity for deliverance rather than handcuffs. The FBI wanted him to speak at seminars against white-collar crime.
Pavlo said he was nervous and ashamed of being a poster child for embezzlement, especially when the Enron scandal that affected thousands was still burned in the public’s mind.
“Then someone told me it helped them and it made me feel good,” he said. “I was appreciative that someone saw a potential for good in a negative thing.”
Since serving his time, Pavlo hasn’t stopped speaking about white-collar crime. “It’s gotten easier, I’ve been doing it for 13 years now,” he said. “I’ve come to realize that I believe in the message. A firsthand account makes people think.”
Pavlo said it’s vital for students to understand who they could become when under pressure and shown the path of least resistance.
“I’m trying to provide students and alumni a different view on white-collar crime other than someone just being greedy, mean and bad,” he said. “I’m not going to disagree that they deserve to go to prison, but I want to put a bit more context around it.”
The greatest mistake, Pavlo said, is to confront the challenges in isolation.
“Everyone else was cutting corners,” he said. “I made choices without thinking things through or talking to people to put my problems in perspective.”
While it’s important to recognize one’s own susceptibility, Pavlo said business leaders must also recognize it in others. The first step is to examine one’s own assumptions.
“A person can be mean and obnoxious, but never commit a crime in their life,” he said. “Sometimes the nicest people you’ve met committed the largest violation.”
If businesses don’t take the time to train employees to avoid white-collar crime, Pavlo said the consequences are more costly than company money.
“Workers who lose jobs will be angry, even at the perpetrator’s own family,” he said. “You won’t be able to find a job. It’s a lifetime sentence.”
Though Pavlo doesn’t expect to find a job in the business world ever again, he said he appreciates the path his life has taken.
“It was very cathartic to confess,” he said. “It allowed me to live my life without worrying about keeping this dirty, dark secret. It’s out there; I can talk about it. I rather live that way than have to excuse myself every time it’s brought up at the dinner table.”
As for his colleagues also involved in the fraud, Pavlo said they are having trouble moving on.
“They’re living very quiet lives,” he said. “They live with it every day and they hope no one recognizes them.”
While Pavlo said he accepts his past and his present, he hopes for a different legacy.
“I want to be remembered as a good dad and a positive role model for my kids,” he said. “If I can do just that, then it’s all fine.”