John M. Rusnak was preparing to open a ZIPS dry cleaning business in Pasadena when a job seeker walked in from a nearby drug recovery house. The applicant had little experience, was recovering from a heroin addiction and had a misdemeanor charge on his record. But he needed a job and wanted a second chance.
Rusnak — the former Allfirst Financial Inc. currency trader convicted in one of the largest U.S. bank frauds in history — knew about second chances. He hired Noah Shefrin, who stayed clean and has since moved up to become a ZIPS general manager. So began Rusnak's mission of hiring others who've made mistakes.
"These are terrific young men and young women who come out of bad choices, whether it's jail or drug addiction, and are trying to turn their life around. It struck a chord. It seemed to me like I was looking in the mirror and seeing myself," Rusnak said. "It's really an untapped resource. … They need a second chance and an opportunity, and they work very hard to prove themselves."
The 49-year-old Mount Washington resident, who has started a new life running ZIPS cleaners for a franchise owner, has come a long way from living a double life more than a decade ago.
As a trader for the former Baltimore-based bank, Rusnak schemed over five years to hide nearly $700 million in trading losses; he was convicted of fraud in 2002. Today he realizes his name will forever be linked to what he calls "past failings," actions that spurred the overhaul of bank management in Baltimore, the sale of the bank by its Dublin-based parent and the shedding of some 1,100 jobs. Rusnak served 51/2 years in federal prison.
"People are always going to associate my name with that criminal activity, and I just have to live with it," said Rusnak, dressed in a blue pullover sweater as he sat in a cramped back office of a ZIPS store in a shopping center off Route 100. He runs that store, which advertises standard $1.99-per-item pricing, along with cleaners in Columbia and Glen Burnie.
Rusnak says he found renewed meaning in his faith while in prison and is remorseful for the pain he caused at Allfirst.
But that pain remains fresh to some former colleagues.
Karen Weiss, a Baltimore resident and Allfirst's former senior vice president for health care banking, is still angry about Rusnak's deception.
"I think many employees felt betrayed by John Rusnak, who had done something damaging to the bank and done it to cover up mistakes he made, instead of stepping up and saying, 'Yes, it was a heinous mistake, but I made it.'"
Weiss, who did not know Rusnak at Allfirst, recalled the scandal as a stressful, uncertain time as employees sought to reassure customers about the bank's stability even as they worried about their own futures. Some employees felt cheated out of raises or bonuses that were withheld because of the bank's losses.
"There were a lot of employees who felt that in their wallets," she said.
Some who work with ex-offenders also note that Rusnak — who was able to take advantage of resources that others lack — had an unusually smooth re-entry into society.
After leaving prison in 2008, Rusnak returned to his family and Victorian house on Smith Avenue, which he was legally permitted to keep as his residence, and set about quietly rebuilding his life. He's grateful that a local businessman stepped in to provide a path to professional redemption — and a chance to help others.
Since opening the first ZIPS in 2011, Rusnak has hired at least 50 workers who've been in jail or halfway houses, 15 of whom continue to work today among the business' 60 workers. Some hires have come through his volunteer work leading weekly Bible studies at Opportunity House, a Pasadena drug recovery center run by Opportunity Ministries Inc. He's also helping juveniles who have been held in adult prisons find entry-level jobs once they are released.
Shefrin, 23, who started out at minimum wage and now manages the Glen Burnie store, said he considers Rusnak a mentor.
Rusnak, he said, "was open and honest. He didn't promise anything, but he promised opportunity. He understands the struggles because obviously he's been in similar situations.
"John's been good to me. He's understanding in ways most bosses wouldn't be."
The man Shefrin describes has little resemblance to the John Rusnak that an investigator for Allfirst parent Allied Irish Banks PLC called a "mugger" in "a corporate mugging."
Rusnak was viewed as "strong and confident" and a "good family man," but also "arrogant and abusive," according to a March 2002 report by Eugene A. Ludwig, a former U.S. comptroller of the currency who conducted a monthlong internal investigation into Allfirst losses.