Online Exclusive: Some Fugitive Executives Still Missing

One of the more dramatic corporate fugitive sagas of recent years came to a close in October 2010, when Mexican police arrested Rebecca S. Parrett in the small lakeside resort town of Ajijic, west of Mexico City. A federal jury convicted Parrett for her lead role in a $2.8 billion health care fraud scheme back in March 2008. She disappeared a day later and evaded authorities for two-and-a-half years.

In some ways, Parrett’s story is extraordinary. Both the magnitude of her crimes and the length of time she was able to stay a step ahead of her pursuers are unusual. But executives flee the country more often than you might think–certainly more frequently than is reported.

It usually happens one of two ways. The first is highly public–an executive who is under investigation, indicted or convicted of crimes skips town before sentencing. The second scenario–the disappearance of an employee who has been secretly stealing from the company–is far more common and definitely less publicized. Both instances can create thorny legal problems for a company–issues in-house counsel don’t face every day.

“Most often when in-house counsel confront this sort of thing, they’ve not run into it before,” says Robert Schurmeier, president of U.S. ISS Agency, a private investigation firm. “Even if they have, their experience is very thin.”

Life of Lies

Dropping off the grid is a lot harder than it used to be. In this era of mobile phones, electronic banking and smart passports, fugitives risk leaving any number of digital trails. Moreover, the stress of never letting your guard down makes most lives on the lam relatively brief. High-profile financial criminals such as Sam Israel and Arthur Nadel, for example, surrendered after just a few weeks, despite apparently elaborate planning.

“To break off a trail in this day and age is very difficult, unless you’re crossing country borders illegally,” says Brian Heslin, a partner at Moore & Van Allen.

Even then, fugitives face the double challenge of having access to enough money to travel quickly and stealthily when they feel the heat, at the same time significantly downgrading their lifestyle in order to maintain a low profile. On top of that, they have to sever all ties with friends and family. It makes for a lonely, paranoid life.

“Psychologically, it wears them down,” Heslin says.

All these dynamics played out in the case of Parrett’s flight, making her run all the more remarkable.

Parrett, 62, owned National Century Financial Enterprises, an Ohio-based health care finance company that went bankrupt in 2002 after a seven-year scheme to deceive rating agencies and investors. As a result of the fraud, 275 health care companies were forced into bankruptcy.

Parrett and nine other executives were convicted or pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme, and they were sentenced to pay $2.3 billion in restitution jointly and severally. After fleeing, Parrett was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

According to the Justice Department, authorities followed leads about Parrett in 12 states and several foreign countries, ultimately leading to her Mexico hide-out.

In Mexico, Parrett lived a double life. She socialized in Ajijic’s expatriate community–reportedly joining a writers’ group, going dancing, attending church and consulting healers. But she was also secretive, going by several names, frequently changing her hairstyle and even undergoing plastic surgery–behavior that aroused suspicion among some locals.

“A criminal as good as her, and she’s good, lives a life of lies,” says Schurmeier, who has no connection to the case. “Sooner or later those lies trip them up.”

That, and the Internet. In February Parrett’s sister, Linda Case, was charged with obstruction of justice for exchanging coded e-mails with the fugitive but refusing to disclose Parrett’s location. In the end authorities found her anyway, and in October the U.S. Marshals Service passed the baton to Mexican authorities to make the collar.

Empty Chair

Companies are placed in a peculiar legal predicament when executives try to escape justice. It complicates ongoing investigations and can throw a wrench into defense strategy, leaving counsel to contend with a delicate balancing act.

On one hand, running from the law can be seen as a clear admission of guilt, allowing the company to try to isolate the fugitive as the sole bad actor, a variation of the so-called empty chair defense. On the other, that tacit confession confirms there was malfeasance and fosters suspicion that the fugitive may be just the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Heslin says. “You can try to say that this person was in charge of everything, but if you’re in the investigatory phase and it’s known that an executive is on the lam, then it’s very unlikely that the government’s going to cease their investigation.”

If anything, a high-profile flight ups the ante for corporate defendants. It doesn’t mean a company can’t hang the crime on the escaped individual, but the facts have to support that assertion, because investigators will only intensify their efforts when they smell blood.

“It’s a viable strategy, but you can’t make it an empty strategy,” Schurmeier says. “You have to put something behind it. Law enforcement has an obligation to go chase every rabbit trail they
run across.”

To Catch a Thief

The Parrett case demonstrates just how far authorities will go to track down a high-profile corporate convict–U.S. Marshals collaborated with the FBI, state and local law enforcement, and foreign police over the course of years. But in the far more common event of a disappeared embezzler, corporate counsel are often surprised to learn that they are on their own.

“Unless you have it completely wrapped up in a bow, law enforcement is not going to expend a whole lot of time and effort on it–especially if that person is presumably outside the country,” Heslin says.

Manhunts are expensive and time-consuming, and resources are scarce. What’s more, most companies are not eager to advertise an internal criminal.

“For every criminal case, there’s a far greater number of cases you never hear about,” Schurmeier says. “What multiple would that be, nobody could tell you, because the numbers are simply not analyzed. Nobody keeps records. The larger companies don’t ever say.”

Companies, with the help of private investigators, are left to track down rogue executives on their own. It may be as simple as scouring the Internet, locating the individual and turning the information over to law enforcement. Sometimes, however, the process is a lot more involved.

Asked whether thriller-movie plots in which bounty hunters track down targets in foreign lands and secretly whisk them back to the country on private jets in the middle of the night have any bearing in reality, Schurmeier pauses.

“Yes,” he says, after a moment. “It’s not every day. I wouldn’t suggest it in the least. But some pretty fascinating stuff happens sometimes.”

When low-level employees steal from a company, the matter is most often turned over to local authorities. But the higher a criminal is on the corporate ladder, the more money they have access to, and the less likely the matter is to ever see the light of day.

“Companies really just want to get their money back,” Heslin says. “They certainly don’t want to get drawn into a long litigation process.”