For Our Class on White-Collar Crime, a Convict

Stepping to the podium, Fred Dellorfano smiles at the 100-plus students seated in the Susquehanna University auditorium here. Then launches into a lecture on business ethics.

Normally this topic might be a snooze. Not this time. For both the students and for Mr. Dellorfano it is a brief window into another world.

Wearing baggy khaki pants, sweatshirt, and tennis shoes, the onetime Boston tax attorney who once sported expensive suits explains his downfall. He tells of small ethical lapses that grew, leading finally to a nine-year prison term for bank fraud and racketeering - with two years still to go.

Immediately after the speech and lunch, Dellorfano and fellow inmate-lecturer Robert Cohen are hustled to a van for the ride home to the federal minimum-security prison at Allenwood, Pa.

Welcome to the emergence of convicted felons in higher education.

Field trips by criminal-justice classes to penal institutions have long been a staple. But in one of the odder twists on the road to a university degree, a few programs now involve lectures on business ethics by criminals - as they do in Susquehanna's "legal environment" business class.

At the University of Maryland at College Park, a three-day business-ethics course is required for graduation from this business masters program. It involves busing 120 graduate students to Allenwood for lectures by inmates there.

And the idea may be spreading. Penn State University and Bucknell University are investigating with prison officials about getting their own white-collar crime lecturers. A federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman says there is "no national program," just Allenwood's - and just when "appropriate prisoners" are available.

This is not "Scared-Straight (a program for young offenders) Goes to College." There is no screaming about the hardships of prison. These are nonviolent criminals in minimum-security facilities, afterall.

Still, it is prison. The point driven home to these students is that these men are not unlike themselves. Dellorfano and Mr. Cohen didn't set out to be criminals, but ended up that way because of their decisions.

"Nearly 40 years ago I was in your position," Dellorfano tells Susquehanna students. "I was brought up in a wonderful, moral-type family situation. I had everything.... What would have caused me to fall off the edge?" He continues: "At some point in the future, you may have second thoughts about doing the littlest things that you might feel is maybe not too illegal.... And that's really where it all starts."

Cohen, a former Boston attorney, was convicted of money-laundering, bank fraud, and conspiracy. He has more than three years to go on a 10-year sentence. After he is released, he faces a $20 million civil judgment.

Cohen begins by asking students how many of them would say that using their company's e-mail system for personal messages is unethical? (Two hands rise.) How about using office computers and photocopiers to help look for another job? (More hands go up.) How about taking orders for a product but knowing you couldn't fill all of them? Does something have to harm someone to be unethical or illegal?

Standing at the back of the auditorium looking pleased is Richard Davis, an associate professor of accounting here at Susquehanna. Hoping to get students to think more deeply about ethical issues they will face, he decided three years ago to ask for a speaker from the prison.

"What it does is eliminate the middle man," Professor Davis says. "I can stand up and talk about white-collar crime, and say: 'Be good, be ethical' and all of that. But when I'm doing it, it's like preaching, and they don't get it from the horse's mouth."

Stephen Loeb, a professor of accounting in the University of Maryland's MBA program, is trying to get students to understand that "even little innocuous things" like accounting tricks are a problem. "You really want to do the thing as ethically as you can," he says. "If you don't, it can lead to disaster."

Ed Kahn, a University of Maryland MBA student, got the message. He visited both a minimum- and medium-security prison this spring and got a lecture by inmates.

"They were just regular people like myself or my peers," he says. "One guy was in the trucking industry, but encouraged his truckers to drive more than the legal amount each day. Through pressure to compete, he let this go and wound up being convicted."

But can an hour lecture - or even a three-day program - really have lasting impact? Professors hope, and their intuition tells them, it can. And students agree. "As an accounting major, I could see myself in a lot of the situations they were describing," says Benjamin DeBell, a Susquehanna sophomore. "It opened my eyes to the repercussions. If you start doing one small thing wrong you get immune to immoral and unethical behavior. Pretty soon tax fraud doesn't seem so bad."

Mr. Kahn agrees. "We're brought up on the concept of competition," he says. "But once you get in that competitive spirit and the adrenaline gets going it's easy to take shortcuts and overlook principles. I'm going to know the laws of whatever industry I'm working in - and take extra precautions to be sure I'm on the right side."

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