Business students get ethics lesson at prison; MBA candidates must visit convicts to receive degrees


CUMBERLAND -- The prisoner giving the lecture had already earned his MBA degree, the same credential that the 35 students from the University of Maryland's business school have been working on for two years.

The students weren't at the Federal Correctional Institution outside this Allegany County city to learn more about finance or accounting; they had come here to meet white-collar criminals and hear cautionary tales of what can happen if they take their degrees and run in the wrong direction.

"I call this 'Scared Straight' for MBA students," said Victoria S. Rymer, a College Park professor who accompanied the students.

The brief ethics course -- no credits, but required for graduation of all 200 UM graduate business students -- was designed by accounting professor Stephen E. Loeb. It includes lectures and role playing, but the centerpiece is visits to federal prisons in Allenwood, Pa., and Cumberland.

"Who knows, some of the students might read about Michael Milken or Ivan Boeskey and think, 'If I could come out of this with a half billion dollars, it might be worth it,' " said Loeb, referring to two high-flying financiers who went to jail. "I don't believe they think that way after these visits."

Other schools have brought prisoners to talk to students, but Maryland is thought to be the only one in the country that brings students to the prisons.

The students shuffled into the rows of folding metal chairs in the visitors' room of the camp portion of the federal facility, the lowest security level of jail in the federal system. Near the entrance to that room were the stars of the show, three of the many men standing around dressed in nondescript green work clothes, blending into the brick-walled background.

Scott Matthieson, the one with the master's in business administration, was first. "I was thinking about it four years ago at this time I was having lunch in Maui," he said. "Three years ago, I was having lunch in Monte Carlo and Nice. You know where I had lunch today."

Matthieson, 37, serving 21 months for theft and mail fraud, seemed a far cry from the cocky executive in the travel industry he once was.

He now makes 11 cents an hour in the menial jobs required of all prisoners. His life is scheduled for him from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Five times a day, he stands next to his bunk and answers roll. "You don't want to be here," he said.

Nicholas Bush, 54, told the students that he once had the type of jobs they now covet -- working for two of the top 20 companies in the country and then heading a large nonprofit organization.

"Imagine what this does to my sense of self-esteem," he said, fingering his green uniform. "It takes a great deal for me to stand here and talk to you."

Bush is serving 41 months for embezzling almost $2.5 million from the Washington-based Natural Gas Supply Association during the 16 years he headed that group. His 11 cents an hour goes to that association as Bush faces a lifetime of restitution.

"You will all have the opportunity to make ethical decisions in your career," Bush said. "You will help yourselves by always erring on the side of right."

Bush, who said he put in two years toward a doctorate in economics, noted that the prison camp hardly looks like a jail. It more closely resembles a well-kept community college campus.

"You might not see any bars but the real prison is inside of you," he said. "There's no way you should sit there and think, 'This is not going to happen to me.' You have to make good, sound moral judgments and associate with good people."

There was nothing hesitant about the third speaker. James Nesser seemed to be back in a familiar role -- in front of a jury, making his case.

"I look out there, and I see my face 25 years ago," said Nesser, 45, who has a law degree and a master's in European history. He was convicted in Pennsylvania in 1996 of money laundering, drug distribution, theft and forgery, and received a 70-month sentence.

Nesser said he was once a district attorney eager to put criminals behind bars. As he sat at the defense table with the drug dealers who had become his clients in private practice, he didn't think he belonged there.

"I had the nice clothes, the fancy cars, the exotic vacations, the women who were interested," he said. "But I was sneaking around, lying to my wife and family. I would do whatever the drug organization asked, all because of the money. I was becoming evil."

Nesser said he didn't understand that until after his conviction, when he found himself in a cell next to a murderer he had put away a decade before. The convict remembered Nesser's closing argument, word for word.

" 'Who's the monster now?' he asked me. 'Who's the human waste? Who's the scum now?' "

Nesser said there was no reason to do what he did: "The opportunities you will be given to achieve in this country are endless. The sky is the limit if you do it the right way."

The presentations seemed to have the desired effect.

"You go in thinking this could never happen to me, but then you see these people who don't look like what you think of as criminals," said Tiffany Morris, 26, who, like all of the students, expects to get her MBA this month. "They look like what I see myself as, in education and experience."

Subramanyan Vedula, 30, said, "It was a real eye-opener." Like several students, she said she is concerned that maintaining personal ethical standards might not be sufficient.

"You have to understand that you might be responsible not just for yourself, but for everyone who works under you, too," she said.

Morris said many alumni have told her that the prison visit was an important part of their experience at Maryland. "This was a real reality check," she said. "You realize nobody is invincible."

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