Ten Questions for Barry Minkow

The current head of the Fraud Discovery Institute also served more than seven years in prison for the infamous ZZZZ Best scam.
CFO StaffJanuary 1, 2005

Barry Minkow says he plans to be remembered for more than the ZZZZ Best Co. fraud. The 38-year-old Minkow served more than seven years in prison for the infamous 1980s scam. But he hopes that his current efforts as head of the Fraud Discovery Institute and as pastor of The Community Bible Church in San Diego will supersede his activities as CEO of the carpet-cleaning company. This month his new book, Cleaning Up (Nelson Current), debuts.

1. Currently, you are fighting the very crime you were convicted of. Isn’t that ironic?

No one failed worse than I did at such a young age. Sure, you can adjust the dollar amounts and say it was $10 billion with Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom, but it doesn’t matter. I was CEO of a public company and I failed. [ZZZZ Best] was a fully reporting public company with a stock that went from $12 to $80. And at 21, I got a 25-year sentence and a $26 million restitution order, and that’s [since been] turned into $1 billion in fraud uncoverings.

2. What can other white-collar criminals glean from your mistakes?

Jeff Skilling’s and Andy Fastow’s best days are ahead of them…if they admit they did wrong, do whatever they can to pay back their victims, and use the same talents they used to defraud people to help them.

3. When you speak to executives about fraud, what’s your main message?

When I speak to executives, I wear my orange prison jumpsuit. It’s gimmicky… [but] the best way to stop fraud is to talk people out of perpetrating it in the first place by doing two things: increasing the perception of detection and increasing the perception of prosecution.

4. Are you surprised that the fraud techniques you used are still out there?

It doesn’t surprise me at all. Long before Enron was touring people on phony trading floors, ZZZZ Best was touring people on buildings for restoration jobs that we never did. Now the variation on a theme is always there, but here’s what we do: we lie about what we owe and we lie about what we earn.

5. On what do you blame the rash of corporate fraud in recent years?

It’s a mentality called right equals forward motion and wrong is anyone who gets in my way. You see, we used to endorse character and integrity, but today the business ethic that reigns is achievement. And whenever you establish the worth of someone based on what they can do and not on who they are, you have created the environment for fraud.

6. Are you skeptical of efforts, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, to legislate ethics?

Let me tell you why this legislation is brilliant. Sarbox hit at a common denominator of corporate fraud: bypassing systems of internal controls. I would not have been able to perpetrate the ZZZZ Best fraud if I had not been able to bypass the system of internal controls. And you know who are heroes now — the internal auditors and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. Unless you’re a perpetrator, you don’t know how good these moves are.

7. Should the sentencing guidelines for white-collar criminals be overhauled?

Yes, and judges should have more discretion. My judge is the one who said that I had no conscience. Two years ago, he dismissed my $26 million restitution order, dismissed me from probation three years early, and told me to go out and fight corporate fraud. [But] I don’t care if anyone goes to jail. The number-one thing white-collar criminals need to do is give the money back to those hurt the most.

8. When will you be satisfied that you’ve repaid your debt to society?

I won’t be. Union Bank had a $7 million loan [against ZZZZ Best], and I have a long way to go. But I haven’t missed a payment in nine years. They’ve gotten over $100,000 this year alone.

9. Why is there so much investment fraud?

What we have is a perfect fraud storm. In places across the country with an appreciating housing market, low interest rates, and consumers dissatisfied with Wall Street returns, you’ll find people ripe for [perpetrators].

10. What do you say to those who doubt your conversion to the straight and narrow?

There’s this great phrase in the Bible: “When the man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him.” The biggest critics of Barry Minkow should be law enforcement. They absolutely know if someone is a fake or real. But they’ve been my biggest supporters.

Interview by Lori Calabro