Bernie Madoff’s Message To MBAs

David Weber at the SEC.

WEBER’S WHISTLEBLOWING MAKES NATIONAL HEADLINES

Many MBA graduates have yet to face their moment of truth. Business schools rarely dissect scenarios where their reputations will be publicly maligned after an organization turns its entire machinations against them. Weber experienced this first-hand after he blew the whistle on the SEC in 2012. “I became aware of really, really really significant misconduct, including Madoff, but not limited to Madoff. Also, it has now become public involving the compromise of SEC computer systems by foreign intelligence agencies. I was not willing to go along or be apart of a culture that would cut corners.”

Like most whistleblowers, Weber paid a dear price. The reprisals began with Weber being banned from SEC headquarters after having been falsely accused of disruptive workplace behavior. Eventually, he was terminated, with false and distorted details conveniently leaked to the Wall Street Journal by SEC senior management. While Weber prided himself on his ability to spot risks and anticipate outcomes, even he was shocked by the blowback.

In the end, Weber was fully exonerated. After an outside government review confirmed his claims (and found that he did not engage in disruptive behavior), the SEC didn’t even bother to contest his wrongful termination suit, paying him a $580,000 settlement and reinstating him to his previous position. On the surface, it seems like “all’s well that ends well” story. However, Weber is more the exception than the rule. “It can be very difficult to be protected as a whistleblower,” he admits. “Sometimes, it can take a long time before you’re vindicated. You need to be prepared for the fact that it’s going to be a rough ride.”

ADVICE TO WHISTLEBLOWERS: HAVE A PLAN B (OR C)

Does Weber recommend that others follow his example? For him, it is a matter of conscience. If an MBA decides that they need to do the right thing, he offers one piece of advice: Have a backup plan. “You need a prepackaged, on-the-shelf plan that you can dust off and take out of the playbook. Hopefully that Plan B or Plan C will help you with a somewhat softer landing that what would otherwise be a really rough ride.”

Weber is living proof of this Plan B mantra. A family man, Weber needed to immediately find work after being cut loose by the SEC. Already tarred-and-feathered in the press, it would’ve been difficult for Weber to land a law license in Maryland or the District of Columbia, where fitness and character were part of the criteria. Luckily, Weber had planned ahead, saving him from moving back to New York where he was a bar member. Although Federal government employees aren’t required to hold a DC law license, Weber had paid $1,800 for one years earlier, earning ridicule from his peers in the process. It was an investment that paid immediate dividends. “Because I had a license and paid my dues every year, I was able to be fired and hit the ground running 11 days later.”

This fast start produced Goodwin Weber PLLC, Weber’s boutique law firm that frequently represents whistleblowers and victims of securities fraud.  In just four years of private practice, Weber has won repeated cases on behalf of government and private sector whistleblowers, including awards of attorney’s fees and damages.   “I was very lucky because my case —between the foreign espionage and Madoff — it was significant enough to be covered in Rolling Stone magazine. So there was a lot of public and political pressure on the SEC. Not every whistleblower has that warm wind behind them, however. As such, it is very important to keep faith in the process. “it’s a long road from law to justice,” Weber adds.

Such experiences also reinforced Weber’s belief that business schools should include ethics and whistleblowing as part of their normal curriculum. “Only by addressing the issues directly can we effect change going forward,” Weber notes.

FROM REACTIVE REGULATOR TO PROACTIVE PROFESSOR

After declining to return to the SEC, Weber’s journey took him to College Park, Maryland, where he has embraced the life of an academic. The Academic Director for the Smith School’s graduate certificate programs in Fraud Management and Anti-Money Laundering Management, Weber confesses the transition from regulating financials to teaching executives has sometimes been steep. Notably, his fraud deterrence and business ethics courses have required him to step back and look at issues from an operational vantage point. It is a complex, ambiguous, and dicey interchange, where legal counsel doesn’t always yield unassailable answers and legal and the ethical standards can sometimes be at odds.

“In enforcement and investigations, the only time I saw something was when a problem already existed,” Weber acknowledges. “Now, I’m having to see it from an enterprise risk perspective, where many of these organizations are trying to do everything that’s required but at the same time earn money.”

That’s a fine line, Weber admits, and one that every company defines differently. “Let me use the example of a bank that will remain nameless,” Weber recalls. “A CEO once told a bunch of bank examiners that they wanted to be ‘a bank that was known for always being one step ahead of the regulators on their heels.’ When I heard that, I thought to myself, ‘This is absurd. Here is a CEO who is intentionally saying that they want to walk the line and just be one step ahead of the wolf biting at their heels.’ Now that I am teaching in a top business school, I see it as an operational decision, that they are willing to take risks perhaps where some of their competitors are not.”

Sometimes, the risk doesn’t pay off. Weber cites Wells Fargo as a “catastrophic” example of a firm that couldn’t balance the mission of maximizing profits with the need to minimize risk. “For many years, they were able to show stock analysts that their ratios for new account openings were higher than their competitors and they were rewarded with a higher share price. Knowing what we know today (and based on the performance of the shares since the scandal has broken), I think that was a risk management failure. In the long run, I don’t think it benefitted them financially.”

“ETHICS IS SEXY. FRAUD IS SEXY.”

Weber has also taken well to teaching. In just his third year at the University of Maryland, he earned the Distinguished Teaching Award for both the University College and the Smith School of Business — the second highest teaching award given by the school (and one based completely on metrics). He has also helped to forge a partnership between the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Maryland and the Smith School on a four course graduate certificate program in Risk, Compliance and the Law, which rolls out in the fall. Weber hasn’t finished making news either. Last year, he was one of the two experts selected to help journalists evaluate the Panama Papers, leaked documents that exposed fraud and tax evasion from current and former heads of state and their family members.

For now, Weber has found his place at the Smith School, relishing the chance to affect change through the next generation of business leaders. “You can see the gears working and light bulbs going off above people’s heads in classes like this,” Weber notes. “Everyone has seen fraud. When you’re in an MBA program, these are not young 20 year-old students. You can see that they get it and that the tools they are given, as we sit there, have an actual impact.”

Part of the appeal stems from the content itself, Weber adds. “Most people don’t think ethics will be exciting. The point is, ethics is sexy. Fraud is sexy. Numbers are sexy. Until the minute they get into class, many are wondering, ‘Do I have to take this class?’ What they realize when they get here is that fraud and ethics are about life. It’s about everything in the world. The day they walk out, they’ve got new tools they can put to work immediately. That’s what an MBA program ought to be all about. It’s certainly what it’s about at Smith.”

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