Sunday, October 22, 2006
The Chamber of Secrets
Pictured, "Allegory of Injustice" Giotto, Capella Scrovegni
Off the books...
I ran into a friend of mine with whom I had lost touch a few years ago after his wife's death from breast cancer. He is a successful businessman, having owned his small but prosperous business for years. His wife had her own successful business up until her death. They owned a house in Minneapolis, another in Florida, with one in Northern Minnesota as well as a house on the Cape. He had several vehicles, a boat and a small plane.
As I said, I lost touch with him after his wife's death, I assumed he had rented his house here in Minneapolis and perhaps was living at the Cape. I had heard he had a new girl friend.
I always liked him, though rather wealthy, he was very down to earth and friendly. I often got the impression that his wife had been a bit snobby, impressed with status and their success, although I eventually realized that he was very proud of their accomplishments as well, nevertheless, he maintained a more humble demeanor. They had everything. Then his wife died and I never saw him much after that.
When I ran into him, after nearly four years, I barely recognized him. He resembled his old self, but he had changed. He is very thin now, rather gaunt and has lost much of his hair. In the course of our conversation I learned he is under house arrest and had been in prison for three years. I was totally shocked. He is one of the most upstanding citizens I have known, honest as the day is long. Though not religious, he has been the typical peace and justice advocate that marks so many of my generation. He always treated his employees fairly and well, often lavishly entertaining his entire company at his home several times a year.
He was so forthcoming about being in prison that in my natural candor I said, "Whatever for? What could you have done? You are not a criminal."
He explained that the IRS and the Social Security Administration went after him for fraud. he had been paying an employee off the books - for over five years. Knowing my friend, it was probably an act of charity on his part. Then maybe not. Those questions I didn't feel were my place to ask. He did tell me the amount of money involved was relatively small, $50,000. That's only $10,000 a year, his bonuses were bigger than that. With fines and penalties, he lost all his luxury vehicles, the plane, and two of his houses, and the business. The business he worked all of his life to build. He said he was grateful his wife hadn't lived to see this. One thing for certain, he is still not poor by any one's standards, but he is a broken man.
I realized there must have been other factors involved; sleight of hand bookkeeping perhaps, maybe not reporting profits or inventory, and with the loss of property, probably some sort of tax shell-game was going on, since his one son who ran the business with him, was also convicted. I imagine that it was a series of little things that led up to the disaster. I feel really bad for him. I thought, why would someone like him have to go to prison for this? Couldn't he have just paid the fines, having lost his business and estate, wasn't that punishment enough? I've been baffled since I spoke with him nearly two weeks ago.
I'm sure he somehow justified himself in his schemes. Of course, there are some religious people who do it all of the time as well. There is a line in one of the psalms, "From my secret sins, acquit me O Lord." My friend was a 'wily' manager - he kept a close eye on his employees, never trusting anyone. I wonder if his distrust of others was born of his own injustice?