Leigh Sprague
Leigh Sprague ()

As far as he knows, Leigh Sprague had never met a felon before he became one himself.

Once an associate at Coudert Brothers and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae and a senior in-house lawyer, Sprague spent two years in a California federal prison for stealing $10 million from a Russian oligarch. Now free at 45, he hopes to prevent future lawyers from taking a similar path.

Earlier this month the Columbia Law School graduate told his story of poor decision-making, addiction and greed to students at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, while other students teleconferenced in from The University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law.

His message? Don’t think it can’t happen to you. As a kind of anti-role model for aspiring lawyers, he hopes they will think of him before using their legal training in ways that could hurt their loved ones or ruin their careers.

“Most white-collar crime is a process,” Sprague said in an interview not long after his presentation. “It takes thought to get there. Sometimes it starts with a little thing and it snowballs.”

A ‘Perfect Scheme’

Sprague is working with Hank Shea, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, who spent more than 20 years as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota.

Shea has helped about two dozen offenders tell their stories to law school and business school students. He serves as moderator, interviewing the former lawyers, CEOs or CFOs about their stories, before letting his students ask questions. Sprague emailed Shea in January and the two met soon afterward to discuss his case.

“I decided after an hour that this person’s story is complex and fascinating,” Shea said. “It would be great for lawyers who want to get involved in international work like he had.”

After graduating from Columbia in 1999, Sprague joined the Moscow office of Dewey & LeBoeuf predecessor LeBoeuf Lamb in 2001. In 2007, Sprague left private practice to go in-house at United Company Rusal, where he served as head of capital markets and corporate finance at the Russian aluminum giant.

In a 2014 cover story for Politico Magazine that he wrote from prison, Sprague described himself as an idealist at the time, eager to help Russia develop as a capitalist democracy.

“In my own minor way, I thought I could contribute by helping West meet East on the vast international playing field of business and commerce,” he wrote.

Instead, he described witnessing corruption, criminality and xenophobia. And he ultimately soured on his boss, billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a founder and president of Moscow-based Rusal.

“And then I hit upon the perfect scheme, a scheme of comeuppance, of escape, of revenge,” Sprague wrote. Meanwhile, he said, he had become addicted to codeine, which impaired his judgment. (In a first-person account in The New York Times this week, Sprague’s ex-wife, who is Russian, echoed many of the details of his story.)

Federal prosecutors alleged in June 2010 that Sprague forged documents claiming that his employer owned a shell corporation that Sprague himself had incorporated in the Republic of Seychelles, an island country in the Indian Ocean.

Sprague then transferred $10 million in Rusal funds to the shell company that he controlled, which he used to fund an $800,000 collection of rare cars, pay off high credit card bills and remodel a home in Malibu, California, according to the Justice Department. He was caught when he tried to transfer another $5 million to the Seychelles several months later.

After fleeing to the U.S., Sprague wrote in Politico and recalled in an interview with National Public Radio how he tried to settle up with his former employer, but federal prosecutors caught up with him. He pleaded guilty, received a 50-month prison sentence and in May 2014 was admitted to a medium security federal penitentiary in Lompoc, California.

At first, Sprague said he tried to keep to himself in prison. But after being disciplined by prison staffers as a result of his Politico piece, he said, Sprague started making friends and began feeling less scared.

“I realized that there were actually some good honorable men in prison, people I respected,” he said. “Once I started realizing that, I started wanting to help them. A lot of them were facing really difficult legal issues that they didn’t understand and I did.”

With a typewriter and law library instead of a computer or the Internet, Sprague started helping other inmates with their cases. Most of the work he did was administrative, such as helping prisoners get medical care or transferred closer to their families. But Sprague said he also helped file a clemency application for one man, Todd Haworth, who had been sentenced to 23 years in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine.

In one of Barack Obama’s last acts as president, he granted clemency on Jan. 19 to 330 nonviolent drug offenders who had extremely long sentences. Haworth, an Idaho native, was one of those individuals. When Sprague read Haworth’s name on the president’s clemency list, he cried.

Sprague was released early from prison late last year because he participated in a drug rehabilitation program. He first headed to a halfway house in Minneapolis, then moved in with his sister, who also lives in the city.

“The transition has been more difficult than I expected, actually,” Sprague said. “I had a plan. It didn’t work out.”

New Beginnings

Though he had hoped to find work as a paralegal at a nonprofit or a law firm, Sprague said he ended up working the night shift at a printing plant. He liked his co-workers, but said he found the work physically challenging and developed carpal tunnel syndrome. He caught a break, however, when a company that sells coffee roasters reached out to his halfway house looking for an employee with office experience.

Now Sprague sells coffee roasters to the company’s international clients, though he is not allowed to leave Minnesota. He did some writing for a website that provides advice for former prisoners and became interested in connecting with white-collar crime law professors, so he reached out to Shea.

Since leaving the U.S. attorney’s office in 2008, Shea has been facilitating talks between his students or students at other universities and offenders.

“I want students to see that this person who has had the same opportunities, the same great education that they are having and got a job that many of them are aspiring to, can make such a bad decision,” Shea said.

The first former convict that he worked with was George Kline, a Twin Cities financier whom Shea had prosecuted. Kline was hit with a 6.5-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine in 2002 for insider trading after being accused of buying thousands of shares of a company that he was negotiating with about a merger. Shea said there was so much interest in Kline’s first talk that it had to be held in a nearby church.

Shea also worked with Richard Juliano, a former deputy chief of staff to ex-Illinois Gov. George Ryan, after Juliano pleaded guilty in 2002 to mail fraud as part of a larger investigation of his boss. Juliano, a lawyer, was disbarred, but in 2012, Shea testified before an Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission board on the former staffer’s behalf. Juliano was reinstated the following year.

Sprague, who was disbarred in New York in 2014, hopes that he may also be reinstated someday. But he said he’s not counting on it. In the meantime, he is working with a few organizations on a volunteer basis to try to use his experience as both a lawyer and a felon to help others.

“He was candid and forthright,” said Shea of Sprague’s presentation. “The students found him to be authentic, and that’s how you get them to remember.”

Copyright The American Lawyer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

As far as he knows, Leigh Sprague had never met a felon before he became one himself.

Once an associate at Coudert Brothers and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae and a senior in-house lawyer, Sprague spent two years in a California federal prison for stealing $10 million from a Russian oligarch. Now free at 45, he hopes to prevent future lawyers from taking a similar path.

Earlier this month the Columbia Law School graduate told his story of poor decision-making, addiction and greed to students at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, while other students teleconferenced in from The University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law.

His message? Don’t think it can’t happen to you. As a kind of anti-role model for aspiring lawyers, he hopes they will think of him before using their legal training in ways that could hurt their loved ones or ruin their careers.

“Most white-collar crime is a process,” Sprague said in an interview not long after his presentation. “It takes thought to get there. Sometimes it starts with a little thing and it snowballs.”

A ‘Perfect Scheme’

Sprague is working with Hank Shea, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law , who spent more than 20 years as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota.

Shea has helped about two dozen offenders tell their stories to law school and business school students. He serves as moderator, interviewing the former lawyers, CEOs or CFOs about their stories, before letting his students ask questions. Sprague emailed Shea in January and the two met soon afterward to discuss his case.

“I decided after an hour that this person’s story is complex and fascinating,” Shea said. “It would be great for lawyers who want to get involved in international work like he had.”

After graduating from Columbia in 1999, Sprague joined the Moscow office of  Dewey & LeBoeuf predecessor LeBoeuf Lamb in 2001. In 2007, Sprague left private practice to go in-house at United Company Rusal, where he served as head of capital markets and corporate finance at the Russian aluminum giant.

In a 2014 cover story for Politico Magazine that he wrote from prison, Sprague described himself as an idealist at the time, eager to help Russia develop as a capitalist democracy.

“In my own minor way, I thought I could contribute by helping West meet East on the vast international playing field of business and commerce,” he wrote.

Instead, he described witnessing corruption, criminality and xenophobia. And he ultimately soured on his boss, billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a founder and president of Moscow-based Rusal.

“And then I hit upon the perfect scheme, a scheme of comeuppance, of escape, of revenge,” Sprague wrote. Meanwhile, he said, he had become addicted to codeine, which impaired his judgment. (In a first-person account in The New York Times this week, Sprague’s ex-wife, who is Russian, echoed many of the details of his story.)

Federal prosecutors alleged in June 2010 that Sprague forged documents claiming that his employer owned a shell corporation that Sprague himself had incorporated in the Republic of Seychelles, an island country in the Indian Ocean.

Sprague then transferred $10 million in Rusal funds to the shell company that he controlled, which he used to fund an $800,000 collection of rare cars, pay off high credit card bills and remodel a home in Malibu, California, according to the Justice Department. He was caught when he tried to transfer another $5 million to the Seychelles several months later.

After fleeing to the U.S., Sprague wrote in Politico and recalled in an interview with National Public Radio how he tried to settle up with his former employer, but federal prosecutors caught up with him. He pleaded guilty, received a 50-month prison sentence and in May 2014 was admitted to a medium security federal penitentiary in Lompoc, California.

At first, Sprague said he tried to keep to himself in prison. But after being disciplined by prison staffers as a result of his Politico piece, he said, Sprague started making friends and began feeling less scared.

“I realized that there were actually some good honorable men in prison, people I respected,” he said. “Once I started realizing that, I started wanting to help them. A lot of them were facing really difficult legal issues that they didn’t understand and I did.”

With a typewriter and law library instead of a computer or the Internet, Sprague started helping other inmates with their cases. Most of the work he did was administrative, such as helping prisoners get medical care or transferred closer to their families. But Sprague said he also helped file a clemency application for one man, Todd Haworth, who had been sentenced to 23 years in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine.

In one of Barack Obama’s last acts as president, he granted clemency on Jan. 19 to 330 nonviolent drug offenders who had extremely long sentences. Haworth, an Idaho native, was one of those individuals. When Sprague read Haworth’s name on the president’s clemency list, he cried.

Sprague was released early from prison late last year because he participated in a drug rehabilitation program. He first headed to a halfway house in Minneapolis, then moved in with his sister, who also lives in the city.

“The transition has been more difficult than I expected, actually,” Sprague said. “I had a plan. It didn’t work out.”

New Beginnings

Though he had hoped to find work as a paralegal at a nonprofit or a law firm, Sprague said he ended up working the night shift at a printing plant. He liked his co-workers, but said he found the work physically challenging and developed carpal tunnel syndrome. He caught a break, however, when a company that sells coffee roasters reached out to his halfway house looking for an employee with office experience.

Now Sprague sells coffee roasters to the company’s international clients, though he is not allowed to leave Minnesota. He did some writing for a website that provides advice for former prisoners and became interested in connecting with white-collar crime law professors, so he reached out to Shea.

Since leaving the U.S. attorney’s office in 2008, Shea has been facilitating talks between his students or students at other universities and offenders.

“I want students to see that this person who has had the same opportunities, the same great education that they are having and got a job that many of them are aspiring to, can make such a bad decision,” Shea said.

The first former convict that he worked with was George Kline, a Twin Cities financier whom Shea had prosecuted. Kline was hit with a 6.5-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine in 2002 for insider trading after being accused of buying thousands of shares of a company that he was negotiating with about a merger. Shea said there was so much interest in Kline’s first talk that it had to be held in a nearby church.

Shea also worked with Richard Juliano, a former deputy chief of staff to ex-Illinois Gov. George Ryan, after Juliano pleaded guilty in 2002 to mail fraud as part of a larger investigation of his boss. Juliano, a lawyer, was disbarred, but in 2012, Shea testified before an Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission board on the former staffer’s behalf. Juliano was reinstated the following year.

Sprague, who was disbarred in New York in 2014, hopes that he may also be reinstated someday. But he said he’s not counting on it. In the meantime, he is working with a few organizations on a volunteer basis to try to use his experience as both a lawyer and a felon to help others.

“He was candid and forthright,” said Shea of Sprague’s presentation. “The students found him to be authentic, and that’s how you get them to remember.”

Copyright The American Lawyer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.