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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Anatomy of a White Collar Crime

Margaret Steen

Steve Brown was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., the son of a successful, politically connected corporate executive. After working on Capitol Hill and graduating from law school, he had a promising career in the Missouri state attorney general's office. He was elected to the Missouri state legislature in 2008 and sworn in in 2009.

And then, with a guilty plea to a felony in 2009, Brown lost "everything I had worked for in my entire life."

Brown told his story in a joint talk with Hank Shea, a law professor and former federal prosecutor, at the Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The talk was entitled, "White Collar Crime — A Case Study."

Brown said the seeds of his downfall were planted with an unsuccessful run for the state legislature in 2002. He became so terrified of failure, he said, that he later allowed a single-minded focus on political success to cloud his judgment.

Shea, a senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and a fellow at the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, has done about 200 similar presentations. Some were done with offenders he prosecuted and some with those, like Brown, whose cases he was not involved in.

Shea said most of the white collar criminals he prosecuted in his 20 years as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota had college educations. "If they lived in your neighborhood, you would not live your life any differently than you do now," he said. Still, he said, their crimes harm others and harm the fabric of society.

In 2004, Brown helped raise money for an independent committee to advocate for his friend Jeff Smith's election to Congress. These committees are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates' campaigns. But this committee coordinated with the campaign on a mailing. According to an article in the St. Louis Beacon, "Smith's campaign knew, and assisted, the efforts of Democratic activist Milton 'Skip' Ohlsen, who conducted the mailings and ran a companion website with money raised by Brown."

Brown said he was detached from the committee's day-to-day activities, but from then on, his problems unfolded in what he describes as "a slow drip."

The Federal Election Commission launched an administrative investigation, which it later closed with no action. However, when Ohlson was subpoenaed, Brown discussed with him and with Smith how to respond, hoping that their names could be kept out of the matter. Unbeknownst to Brown, Ohlson taped these phone calls. Later, an unrelated criminal investigation turned up tapes of these conversations.

The tapes led the authorities to Brown, who then cooperated with law enforcement by taping conversations with Smith. The decision to tape the calls with Smith was "the most difficult yet clear-cut decision I've been faced with," Brown said.

Shea, who has prosecuted numerous cases that involved a cooperating witness turning against a former friend, noted that such decisions are "not without cost."

In August 2009, Brown pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. He surrendered his law license and resigned from his legislative seat. He was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $40,000.

Brown told the audience that he now sees how his ego and pride affected his decision-making. He worried about not being able to live up to his father's success. "One of the big motivations in my life was how horrible it would be for me to be the son of this business executive with every advantage that I was given and not succeed at something," he said.

He also said that his singular focus on politics led him to put too high a premium on keeping the FEC from uncovering the campaign violation, which would have been a problem but not nearly as consequential as his criminal conviction.

"I was not talking to people outside politics about what was going on," Brown said. "Why in the world would I ever have put myself in harm's way? Why would I do any of this? I'm certain that if I had bounced this stuff off people outside of politics, they would have said you are absolutely crazy."

The aftermath of Brown's conviction has been difficult, especially professionally. His family and friends stood by him, however. Now, Brown hopes to regain his law license and is also starting a franchise business. The irony, he said, is that he lost the chance to succeed in politics that he had anticipated for so long.

"I wanted to be in office for all the right reasons," Brown said. "I wanted to do good things."

Margaret Steen is a freelance author.

Oct 15, 2015