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White-collar criminals share one trait - greed.

I retired a few years ago after more than 30 years as a U.S. probation officer for the Federal Court in the Eastern District of Michigan. My 30 years were evenly divided: I spent 16 years as a line officer and 14 as an administrator.

I often am asked what the offenders I supervised had in common. A large portion were professionals--doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers, and even a few former judges and high-level politicians. And the one common thread I noted, year after year, was greed.

This common denominator has changed society's priorities and damaged the nation's value system. One goal now dominates--to achieve material things at any cost.

No longer are we encouraged to be thrifty or to prolong our desires. Self-denial and willpower belong to the past. Why not seek immediate rewards? Why sacrifice and deny ourselves material pleasures that we believe "everyone else has?" If we cannot legally have them right now, why not cheat or finagle them?

Many white-collar offenders believe they deserve a better standard of living than they have. If the doctor down the hall just recently purchased a 50-foot yacht, don't I deserve the same? If one Mercedes looks impressive, just think what two will do for the family ego.

Greedy people believe that everyone commits fraud or manipulates figures to some degree. They think: "If everyone is doing it, why shouldn't I? Certainly I won't be singled out as a criminal." Our federal courts are filled with professionals who believed they were above the law and entitled to better lives.

I was not surprised to see two osteopathic physicians before the court for defrauding Blue Cross of more than $2 million. After all, it was easy to make up phony files on make-believe clients--whose names were taken from tombstones of a local cemetery. Given the phony files, it was a simple matter thereafter to bill Blue Cross for medical procedures that never were performed. These two doctors did this hundreds of times.

During my career, three consecutive presidents of one of Detroit's largest labor unions were indicted and convicted of embezzlement of union funds. All three ultimately were sent to prison. The first--an individual I supervised on parole--eventually fell in disfavor with local organized crime bosses and disappeared. His body was never found.

I also recall the case of the president and vice president of a well-known Detroit trucking company who were convicted of cheating the federal government out of more than $1 million in excise taxes by manipulating their corporation's annual income.

As a probation condition (in addition to short terms in a federal facility and a large fine) the court ordered 200 hours of community service. At the time, the chief U.S. district judge was setting up a program to have probationers perform community service for various needy agencies and facilities in the Detroit area. The judge and I sought a pertinent assignment for these two "gentlemen corporate executives." The job we decided on was cleaning and mopping the resident floors of a convalescent home for elderly patients with bladder and kidney disorders.

I also remember the case of 32 pharmacists in the Detroit area who were part of a drug conspiracy to fill needy and low-income clients' prescriptions with generic drugs while charging Medicare or Medicaid the brand-name prices. Their excuse was that "everyone was doing it that way." Well, the jury thought otherwise.

These cases showed me that many professionals in society have lost sight of morality, justice, self-sacrifice and other qualities which once made this a rightfully proud and productive nation. Greed now affects all professional walks of life, including medical, judicial, political and business enterprises.

No longer is reputation or a good name a sought-after trait. Many people would rather have material things they believe will give them happiness. Unfortunately, they will discover that true happiness eludes them. Eventually, they will be caught up in despair, loss of status and even the loss of the profession that led to their temporary material achievements.

How does society restore its basic value systems and moral principles? Perhaps we could start by simply restructuring our attitudes and priorities regarding what really constitutes happiness. We also might return to the basic values of American family life that we so strongly treasured a half century ago.

Money does not necessarily bring happiness. In fact--as many of the offenders I supervised can attest--if obtained unlawfully, it brings misery, degradation, infamy and disgrace.

George Miller is a corrections consultant and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., and Marygrove College in Detroit.
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Title Annotation:A View From The Line
Author:Miller, George
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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