Organizers of the Chambers Lecture Series chose what may seem to many like a rather unusual speaker for their twelfth lecture of the year: Patrick Kuhse, a former financial planner turned convict turned public speaker.
But Kuhse and the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, the Boston College organization that hosts the Chambers series, actually hold business and personal ethics in high regard.
“I was given the opportunity to spend four years at the University of Crime,” Kuhse said. “It cost me my country, my assets, my freedom, and my family. Every decision we make impacts our loved ones.”
Kuhse went to Arizona State University, which fulfilled his two requirements that his college have no snow and be a lot of fun.
“My mother noticed a change in me. She said all I talked about then was money, but I didn’t care. [My classmates and I] were the Gordon Geckos of the future.”
Kuhse connected his poor decisions to eight critical thinking errors, which he said he encountered in the stories of other prisoners as well.
The first error is having a sense of entitlement, which, in Kuhse’s case, caused him to drop out of school after two years and eventually become a New York stockbroker.
“I didn’t want to wait until after graduation to make my millions,” he said.
The second error Kuhse identified is super optimism, which he defined as considering oneself invulnerable and incapable of failure. He was soon working 80 hour weeks, never thinking the greed this created would catch up to him.
Kuhse’s third critical thinking error, affection dissociation, caused him and his family the greatest stress. Though he turned down a job in New York in order to move back to his wife’s hometown of San Diego, CA to keep the family together, his work interfered once again.
“If I could buy them more things, I could make them happier,” Kuhse said, “and if there’s a problem, I’ll just make more money and make it go away.”
In 1990, he fell victim to the fourth error: the making of seemingly unimportant decisions. A friend of his had a friend who was running for state treasurer of Oklahoma and told Kuhse that she would hire him to be one of the state’s ten investment brokers if he agreed to give her a cut of his commission. Though Kuhse knew the scheme was unethical and illegal, he agreed to it and, after bumping up his commission to 5 percent of each trade, made $400,000 in one week.
“A confused mind does nothing,” Kuhse said. Because the sheer amount of money he was making stunned him, he continued with the scheme despite the fact that his wife and mother questioned its legality.
“It was okay because the state was making money too,” Kuhse said, falling victim to the fifth critical thinking error, rationalization.
Kuhse said that the sixth error, laziness, led him to give his friend an ATM card connected to his personal bank account, which held $6 million after 21 months. But after a disgruntled former employee went to the FBI, Kuhse’s connection to his friend, who was withdrawing the maximum amount allowed from the ATM every day for two months, got him into trouble with the FBI and IRS.
He blamed his friends for everything, saying that even though they never forced him into the scheme, they were the ones who presented him with the tempting opportunity in the first place. “It’s so easy to be a victim,” Kuhse said.
Kuhse had two options: go to trial and risk up to 15 years of imprisonment, or turn all of his friends in and get only 15 months of imprisonment.
Instead of taking the deal, Kuhse made the eighth critical thinking error of invoking situational ethics.
Though it was alright to take huge amounts of money from the state, his ethics led him to believe that turning in his friends was disloyal.
After Kuhse’s friends were sentenced to 9 years of prison, he and his family fled to Costa Rica, where they lived for several years before Interpol finally caught up with him.
“I ran out the back door,” Kuhse said. “I thought, ‘Kill me now, and I win.'” He lived as an international fugitive for four years before finally turning himself in. Even though spending a month in a Costa Rican prison was terrifying, Kuhse said he had never felt better. “I was doing the right thing,” he said.
Kuhse spent four years in prison in America, during which time he completed his college degree. After his release, Kuhse and his wife divorced, but he repaired his relationship with his sons. “They still won’t let me be the banker in Monopoly,” he said.
“Income will never be the definition of you,” Kuhse said to close. “The only two things we have at the end of the day are our choices and our relationships.”