Under Attack: Honesty

Under Attack: Honesty

Prison time is a real consequence of dishonesty.

“Perhaps the toughest moment was after prison, in July 2010, when my teenage son confronted me while I drove him to basketball practice. He said, ‘You have no idea what it was like for me with you gone,” and explained that he had been ridiculed at school by other kids telling him that his dad was a criminal and a felon. ‘And you missed my whole eighth grade!’ he said, and then he chronicled the events that I had missed while in prison.”

I was crushed,” said Mark Faris, who recently shared his story with me over lunch in downtown Minneapolis. The conversation with his son ended with a request that Faris promise to never leave him again. In 2010, Faris was away from his family for 318 days, serving nearly nine months in the Duluth Federal Prison Camp and two months in a halfway house in Minneapolis. He is now under supervised release until June 2013, and is paying off $215,000 restitution.

Despite his 32 years as a successful business executive, Faris’s fresh felony record made it difficult to find a job. Instead, he started a public speaking and training company called MPV Ethics to educate others about avoiding the path he took in the early 2000s. Faris said that he feels he owes it to his family and friends to make the most of his prison time, and now is using his experience to teach students and businesspeople that “if it can happen to me, it can happen to them.” He recently addressed students at Stanford Law School on “Committing Fraud, Accepting Responsibility, and Going to Prison: One Person’s Story.”

Faris’s story starts on August 29, 2002, a normal day at the office at InterLink Communications Corporation, where he served as vice president of sales and marketing. It was normal, that is, until 21 federal agents walked in the front door with a search warrant. The agents explained they were looking for evidence that InterLink had scammed computer networking equipment giant Cisco out of $490,000.

Faris’s routine included overseeing the company’s daily customer interactions. InterLink was growing by leaps and bounds in the late 1990s. This was boom time for the computer industry, and InterLink’s niche was in refurbished equipment sold at lower prices and available more quickly than new equipment. InterLink’s enormous success resulted in the Minnesota-based company becoming a value-added reseller for California-based Cisco.

Then the tech bubble burst. The computer industry crashed, and so did the relationship between InterLink and Cisco, as InterLink’s success in selling lower-priced refurbished equipment was eating into Cisco’s new equipment sales. However, InterLink’s business also included servicing Cisco customers through support contracts to repair and replace out-of-warranty equipment.

In late 2000, an InterLink engineer told Faris that Cisco had sent the company a new version of an out-of-warranty printer circuit board that InterLink was to swap out for a Cisco customer. The value of the new part was about $1,200 more than an older version that Cisco should have sent to them. Faris and the engineer thought it was just a mistake, and since there weren’t contracts specifically tracing part numbers and serial numbers, they didn’t bring it to Cisco’s attention.

Two weeks later, the same thing happened again. “We thought it was odd, and we talked about it, but nobody thought to ask Cisco why they were sending us new parts,” said Faris. At the same time, Cisco salespeople were telling InterLink to stop selling refurbished equipment, which Faris felt was an intrusion into their business practices. Then suddenly, Cisco customers stopped doing business with InterLink, cutting InterLink’s revenues in half. Faris suspected that Cisco had told its customers to stop doing business with them.

“I felt like I was in a David versus Goliath battle,” Faris said, “and I was resentful. So I instructed my staff to lie to Cisco about the parts we had in stock to fill in some of our lost revenue.” From January 2001 to August 2002, 140 false equipment swaps were done with Cisco. “It did not occur to me or to my staff during this time,” said Faris, “that by exchanging parts from one state to another state and making profit on those activities that we were committing mail fraud and money laundering.”

Until, that is, that fateful day in August 2002 when agents from the FBI, Treasury, and Postal Service raided InterLink’s office. The agents were there for 16 hours, taking evidence and questioning employees. The investigation lingered for months, which affected the company’s business and led to InterLink closing its doors in March 2003.

But nothing happened with the investigation for two years, during which time InterLink aligned with a British refurbished-computer company called Zycko. In November 2004, 27 months after the raid, Faris’s attorney called him and told him that it appeared the investigation wasn’t going any further.

More time passed, and Faris focused on rebuilding the company as a minority owner under Zycko. Then in January 2007, Faris’s attorney called again, telling him he had good news and bad news: “The bad news is that they are going to get you. The good news is that they aren’t coming for you now.”

It took only a few months of waiting, and on March 14, 2007, a postal inspector arrested Faris, his first cousin (who had been InterLink’s CEO), and two other employees. He placed them in handcuffs and drove them to St. Paul, where they were charged with mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

“I was cited my Miranda rights, photographed, fingerprinted, strip-searched, and put in a solitary cell,” Faris said. “I thought: My life is over.”
They were released later that day and Faris began a long and expensive legal battle that eventually resulted in him pleading guilty and negotiating an agreement that included testifying against his cousin during his trial. (The other two employees also pled guilty and negotiated plea agreements, while his cousin maintained his innocence and was eventually exonerated.)

The trial was held in December 2008. Faris then waited another seven months to receive his sentence, which was for one year and one day beginning July 31, 2009. His wife and two sons drove him to Duluth, where he spent nearly nine months in a prison camp alongside 924 other inmates, most of whom were serving time for drug-related crimes and grand theft. According to Faris, less than 10 percent of the inmates had committed white-collar crimes.

As I listened to Faris’s story, I kept thinking : He looks like all the other business executives having lunch around us. Why did this happen to him? What separated him from the rest of us who are confronted with ethical dilemmas all the time and make different decisions?

“Underlying it all was greed and arrogance,” Faris said. “I learned that you cannot harbor resentment and take it into your own hands. We premeditatedly lied and took advantage of the situation. Arrogance and greed, combined with rationalization, is a destructive combination.”

Faris describes his journey in phases. “After the indictment, for about 15 months I was in what I call phase one, which was total denial. I was arrogant and self-centered, and was rationalizing my behavior. Phase two was a few-month period when I started confronting the truth: Did I benefit from this? Did I orchestrate it? I became receptive to advice from my wife and pastor. Then phase three, in July 2008, I embraced the truth. It was total surrender, and after I worked out the plea agreement, I actually felt a sense of total release. I wasn’t angry anymore but finally felt some grace and humility.”

Faris told me that the most impactful question he asks corporate executives is: “What kind of legacy do you want to leave for your kids?” He is now giving speeches and workshops on accountability, honesty, and integrity and how they should be at the core of individual and corporate behavior.

We finished our lunch, shook hands, and went our separate ways, though I think my personal mission to improve corporate ethics was more meaningful after hearing about my new friend’s journey. I felt grateful for the opportunity to learn from Mark’s mistake and hope he will have the opportunity to tell his story many times. When I left the office later that day, I was even more thankful for having my family, my business, and my home.

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