The Role of Ethics in Religion
Cyber ethics education

Catch Me if you Can

The Harvard Fraudster

Perhaps you remember the Steven Spielberg movie, Catch Me if you Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, that told the story of Frank Abagnale, known for his history as a former confidence trickster, check forger, imposter, and escape artist. He became notorious in the 1960s for passing $2.5 million worth of forged checks across 26 countries over the course of five years, beginning when he was 16 years old.

Abagnale became one of the most famous impostors ever, claiming to have assumed no fewer than eight separate identities as an airline pilot, a doctor, a U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent, and a lawyer. He escaped from police custody twice (once from a taxiing airliner and once from a U.S. federal penitentiary) before he was 21 years old.

Abagnale served fewer than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government. He became a consultant and lecturer at the academy and field offices for the FBI. He also ran Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company.  Like all too many criminals, he was rewarded for his criminal efforts by talking to others about how to avoid making the same “mistakes”.

On December 16, 2010, life imitated art when former Harvard student, Adam Wheeler, pleaded guilty to all 20 counts against him, admitting that he duped the Harvard admissions office and defrauded the University out of over $40,000 in grants and prizes.

Wheeler’s story seems to have been inspired by the movie. He committed larceny, identity fraud, falsifying an endorsement, and pretending to hold a degree. He was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and ordered to make restitution of $45,806 to Harvard University and to continue the psychological treatment that he had begun since his arrest.

Wheeler conceded that he dishonestly gained admission to Harvard by fabricating SAT scores, falsifying letters of recommendation, and forging high school and college transcripts. He also admitted to plagiarizing essays and a research proposal that earned him a Hoopes Prize, Sargent Prize, and Rockefeller research grant while he was a Harvard student.

It seems that Wheeler went one step too far in his quest to fool all of the people, all of the time, when he applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. He claimed to have a 4.0 average. He did not. His résumé said he had coauthored four books with a Harvard English professor. The professor he listed did not coauthor books with undergraduates, and college students, even at Harvard, typically do not have four advanced books to their credit by senior year. Wheeler also wrote that he was fluent in Old Persian, Classical Armenian, and “Old English”.

Wheeler just couldn’t keep away from playing the game. But the tale began unraveling during the interview process for the Scholarship, when a Harvard professor noticed inconsistencies and alerted administrators. Wheeler was expelled from the school and the criminal investigation was launched.

On November 11, 2011, Wheeler allegedly violated the condition of his probation that prohibits him from portraying himself as a Harvard student or claiming that he ever attended Harvard. Apparently, he submitted a resume to U.S. Green Data, Inc. that said he had attended Harvard. His attorney argued that he should not be sent to jail because he needed to be working and was emotionally “fragile”. [Lying and deceiving and covering-up will do that to you.]

The lawyer claimed that after Wheeler lost his job, he felt financial pressure to pay rent for his apartment and the $45,806 restitution to Harvard ordered by the court. Wheeler had only just found a new job—performing manual labor—a week ago before he was summoned to court for this alleged violation. According to his attorney, Wheeler was not a flight risk because he voluntarily appeared in court for sentencing and would return to court whenever he is called back. “Going to jail would be particularly harmful for Wheeler because his absence could cost him his job and return him to a precarious financial state”.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, three times, four and more, shame on the legal justice system.

On December 23, 2011, Wheeler was sentenced to one year in prison.

So what’s the lesson to be learned from Wheeler’s story? Sadly, it is that crime does pay. Here is a guy that broke virtually all the rules in the book for honorable behavior and took the pursuit of self-interest to a new (low) level.

Actually, I like his own assessment of his character in an e-mail sent to fellow Harvard students:

“My own, brief, assessment of my character is that I am sententious, crypto-tendentious, slightly pedantic with a streak of contrarianism, a fascination with any pedagogical approach to Shakespeare, and a decent sense of humor.”

Wheeler also remarked on his made-up time at MIT:

“At MIT I was, to put it poorly, suckled upon the teat of disdain. That being said (fortified by a reflexive snort), I was inspired thereby to apply to Harvard, where the humanities, in short, are not, simpliciter, a source of opprobrium”.

Who could argue with that logic? Who can understand what he said? And there’s the rub. The red flags were there but ignored.  A blatant faker like Wheeler should have been outed much sooner than he was.

The moral of the story is we have to be more vigilant in assessing the behavior of those around us because they can do real harm whether to institutions, such as Harvard, or to folks in our community. All we need do is think about the actions of James Holmes, who, during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises”, killed 12 and wounded 58. It appears he tried to reach out for help, and red flags existed, but those in the know found it easier to dismiss the warnings. It reminds me of the sex scandal at Penn State. The warnings signs were there but it was easier to hope the problem would go away than be proactive and avoid a disaster before it happens.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 7, 2012