Justin Paperny, wearing his luckiest pair of golfing slacks, was about to tee off at Calabasas Country Club in Calabasas, California, one morning in March when his phone began buzzing.
On the other line was a familiar voice, a well-known lawyer whose client had just been indicted by the FBI for their role in a sprawling admissions scandal involving dozens of parents and name-brand schools like Yale, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.
The lawyer wanted to know whether Paperny – a federal prison consultant and convicted felon who prepares people for life behind bars – was available to discuss the case.
The answer was yes. But like most of his work, Paperny explained, a hefty price tag would be attached.
While the college admissions scheme captured the public’s attention last month, temporarily uniting the left and the right in mutual disgust, prison consultants like Paperny went to work. Part fixer, part adviser and part therapist, their jobs amorphously range from soothing exaggerated fears about sexual assault and answering the basic questions about hygiene (i.e. “How do I use the bathroom in federal prison?”) to managing portions of a business when they’re behind bars. Like hardened sherpas leading well-heeled clients up a treacherous peak, they’ve smoothed the road to incarceration for big name clients like Bernie Madoff, Martha Stewart and former NBA referee Tim Donaghy.
For a wealthy client ensnared by the admissions scandal, Paperny said one question in particular undoubtedly looms: “Will I ever work again?”
“There’s a million questions that go through people’s minds in the beginning,” said Paperny, who helps clients organize their finances and find job opportunities before they go into prison, as well as after. “The hardest part is the public shame and embarrassment and not knowing how it’s going to affect your career and your finances.”
“Those questions are harder than any day they may serve,” he added. “These people in this admissions scandal are already in federal prison – they’re just not getting credit for time served.”
For Paperny, the recent call wasn’t the only reason one of largest news stories in the country hit particularly close to home. A Southern California native who played baseball at USC, the 44-year-old is a regular lecturer on ethics at the university’s Marshall School of Business. Already struggling to recover from recent controversies, his alma mater is ground zero for the admissions scandal, a place where six of the 50 alleged perpetrators – including several prominent athletics officials – have close ties.
As a former Bear Stearns stock broker who spent 18 months in federal prison for conspiring to commit fraud, Paperny is uniquely qualified to discuss ethical failings when he visits the university. A decade after his release, his eight-person firm, White Collar Advice, has become a go-to resource for wealthy criminals preparing for prison. His YouTube channel, which covers much of the advice he gives his clients, has several thousand subscribers.
Paperny – who has close ties to Hollywood and its glut of high-profile criminal defense attorneys – still looks the part of the life that led him astray. Clean-shaven and and professional-looking, he favors trim suits and trendy Travis Mathew apparel on the golf course. He’d look equally at home behind a desk inside a Wall Street hedge fund or a corporate law firm, his confident demeanor still infused with a hint of his former brashness.
A week after news of the scandal broke, Paperny said he’d already been hired by one person tied to the college admissions scandal and provided the Washington Post with an invoice showing a down payment of several thousand dollars. But, he said, multiple people charged in the scandal had reached out to him for advice and he suspected he would be hired by several of them.
New clients are drawn to him, he said, because he doesn’t make unrealistic promises or attempt to downplay the difficulty of their situation. He maintains the criminal justice system incarcerates far too many people, wasting taxpayer dollars and ruining lives out of habit. At the same time, he embraces his own troubled past like other people embrace college, calling prison “a growth opportunity” and “one of the best experiences” of his life. It’s a message he’s even delivered to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Paperny said his fee – which could reach tens of thousands for his latest client – is high, in part, because he’s one of the few people who can speak to upper-crust criminals in a language they understand. The first step, he said, is often breaking through the denial that afflicts privileged first-time offenders. To aid them in this process, Paperny asks some clients to film YouTube videos where they recount their illegal behavior, such as one he filmed with Jonathan Schwartz, a former business manager who was sentenced to six years in prison for embezzling millions from singer Alanis Morissette.
The quicker Paperny can get a client to accept responsibility, the better his chance of helping them reduce a possible sentence later on. What they desperately want to avoid, he said, is a situation like Paul Manafort faced in February when a judge questioned his seeming lack of regret.
How would he reach a privileged parent caught in an admissions scandal?
“I would tell them that I empathize with them, that I have no doubt that they probably had good intentions and that it’s clear they didn’t think about the consequences of their conduct and instead of making matters worse, they can take ownership of their situation and start to improve things,” Paperny said.
“For some it’s brutal to hear that,” he added. “They don’t consider themselves criminals, but fathers and mothers and members of the community who have contributed things to society.”
Federal prosecutors would appear to disagree. They’ve charged 50 people with crimes like conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud that could result in multiyear prison sentences.
The unregulated prison consultant industry, which is full of ex-convicts, has long been a controversial one. This year, three people from the industry were accused of helping ineligible convicts attempt to reduce their sentences by fraudulently gaining access to the Residential Drug Abuse Program, known as RDAP, according to the Associated Press.
Aside from the potential for abuse, prison consulting also raises important moral considerations, according to Robert M. Franklin, a professor of moral leadership at Emory University.
“This is a fascinating and disturbing phenomenon,” he said. “It seems to preserve and transfer the inequalities of opportunity in the free world right into the prison, a place designed to level and equalize status. Remorse, hard work and merit should govern future prospects, not money.”
Paperny said his company has also worked with indigent clients referred to them by public defenders and he often works within people’s budgets. He said his goal is not to provide privileged people with an unfair advantage, but to provide the government with a “different story” about someone’s life than the one they’ve heard from prosecutors.
“My goal is for the judge and others to see that perhaps one bad decision should not define someone’s whole life and that the rest of that life is taken into consideration when they’re sentenced,” he said.
When Mike Shelley found out he was the target of a criminal investigation by the FBI in 2018, he panicked, his mind conjuring up a series of prison horror stories that suddenly felt all too real.
“It was like a bucket of ice water being dumped on you,” he said. “You read about people being indicted every day in the news, but never expect it to happen to you. For somebody like me who has never been in any trouble, you automatically default to what you’ve seen on TV and in the movies about prison.”
Clueless about how to prepare, Shelley got online and Googled, ‘What’s life like in a federal facility?“ His search led him to Paperny, whom he hired as the life he’d built began to unravel. The 38-year-old former bank president had gone from being a respectable member of the small community where he lives in Sherman, Texas, someone accustomed to advantages and opportunities, to a pariah without a career.
Paperny served as a bulwark against the chaos, Shelley said, offering guidance that has been well worth the thousands of dollars he’s spent on prison consulting. During weekly phone calls, Paperny helped Shelley prepare for an intensive presentencing interview and he worked with family and friends on character reference letters, which are written to influence sentencing decisions.
“The judge later told me those were the best letters he’d ever seen,” Shelley said proudly.
Paperny also coached Shelley on talking to his 10-year-old son about the storm swirling around his father. Nearly a year later, as Shelley prepared to begin a decadelong prison sentence at a low-security correctional facility about an hour from his home, his biggest concern was not his own safety or whether he deserves his punishment, but the effect his incarceration will have on his wife and child.
To deal with that concern, Shelley said, Paperny has coached him to approach the experience with a singular goal in mind: reducing his sentence by about half through good behavior so he can come home to take care of his family.
“I’m at peace with my sentence,” he said. “The real punishment is really to those that love you. This experience will be way harder on my wife and my son than it will ever be on me.”
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