Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published July12, 2002

Hearts Behind Bars

When my son and daughter were little they learned how to play hearts at Duluthís Federal Prison. For about a year our family made monthly visits to Dave, a close friend of my wifeís sister and her husband. He had been convicted of embezzling $75,000 from his employerís credit union. Dave and his wife were DINKS. (Double Income No Kids)  They lived in a nice house on a lake but apparently Dave didnít think they had enough to keep up with the Jonesís.

We got to see an interesting collection of humanity in the prisonís visiting room. The inmates were roughly divided into two groups - Black drug pushers and White white collar criminals. We were mostly introduced to white inmates and their visitors like the bitter woman whose husband took the fall when her friend ratted on her for dumping heavy metal residues from their business into Lake Michigan . She didnít much care for the EPA.

Dave wryly pointed out the mutual disdain white and black inmates held for each other. White embezzlers, he explained, looked down on the black prisoners because of their unwholesome commodity. Black drug dealers looked down on the white collar criminals for taking what didnít belong to them. White thieves were proud that they hadnít poisoned anyone. Black inmates were proud to have offered their customers a service while partaking in that most American of activities Ė commerce.

Commerce has been on my mind lately what with all the news stories about Enron, Arthur Anderson, Global Crossings, etc. Itís reminded me of all those games of hearts we played among the felons whose commercial ventures caught up with them. The simple motivation behind every one of those inmates was greed. Itís the same motivation behind all the current news headlines in the business world and itís a big deal. The headlines are shaking the nationís confidence in the stock market and threatening the economy.  Thereís a lot of finger pointing going on in Washington over who to blame. There is a very fine line between commerce and larceny. Itís called ethics.

I got my lesson in ethics from my folks. In fact, politics, money and my Dadís ethics are what landed my family in Minnesota . When my Dad was a kid in Independence , Missouri , he was offended by Boss Pendergastís corrupt Democratic machine in neighboring Kansas City . All those corrupt Democrats turned my Dad into a Republican. Even some Pendergastís cronies, like Harry Truman, were embarrassed by the machineís reputation. After he got elected to the U.S. Senate Harry jumped at the chance to spruce up his reputation.  He did it, just like todayís congressman, by chairing a Senate Committee investigating war profiteering.

After my Dad was admitted to the bar he worked for the Kansas State Insurance Commission. He prided himself on keeping unscrupulous insurance companies out of the state. He had hopes of advancing in office until he made the mistake of advising his boss not to accept gifts from the companies they regulated. After a more circumspect colleague won the promotion that my Dad had wanted he realized heíd better move on. We packed our bags and moved to Minnesota and he started teaching law at Mankato State .

I entertained some hope for Daveís redemption but Iím sorry to report that during his stay I never got the sense that Dave ever realized he was a crook. As far as he was concerned his was just a matter of bad timing. (Iíve been hearing much the same excuse from the halls of corporate America lately) If Dave had just had a little more time he would have paid everything back and no one would have been any the wiser.

Dave couldnít hide his admiration (or maybe it was envy) for an even bigger embezzler. The object of his admiration was a Twin City ís banker who had absconded with several millions of dollars, a sum which dwarfed Daveís take. Like Dave, this fellow had persuaded himself that if only heíd been given a little more time everything would have worked out. This bigger chiseler received many supportive friends during our visits. After he was released they saw to it that a good job was waiting for him although he wasnít happy with the measly $120,000 salary it offered.

The drug dealers havenít got it all wrong. Commerce is the lifeblood of the nation and in the next few years the drug dealers can expect to meet many representatives of the business world as they head to Duluth to serve their prison terms. It will keep the courts and the politicians busy for some time to come. In the meantime, my kids still know how to play hearts.

A friend told me that she thought my last column pooh poohed Tim Pennyís chances of winning the Governorship. Au contraire! I was probably just too oblique to get my point across,  to wit: If Jesse couldnít win four years ago Tim canít win today. In other words Ė Donít take the predictions that Penny canít win this year any more seriously than the predictions about Jesse losing four years ago. And the odds for Penny have improved now that heís chosen a popular Republican State Senator to be his running mate. If the Republicans hadnít denied Martha Robertson the Senate endorsement because she was pro choice, Penny wouldnít have been able to add her to his arsenal.

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com 

and read this cogent column on the accounting scandals