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3:40 am
Thu January 2, 2014

Given A Second Chance, Convicted Currency Trader Helps Others

Originally published on Thu January 2, 2014 6:33 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And even as things are looking up for the auto industry, many Americans still feel the sting of the 2008 recession. In the years since, many banks have been hit with large fines, but no major Wall Street executive has been convicted of criminal charges for their role in the financial crisis. That's not always how it went. A few years ago, a series of corporate scandals generated outrage and some stiff prison sentences.

Lawrence Lanahan has the story of one rogue trader who served seven and a half years in prison, and is now trying to make amends.

LAWRENCE LANAHAN, BYLINE: It was one of the largest bank frauds in history. Currency trader John Rusnak racked up nine-figure losses at Baltimore's Allfirst Bank trying to come back from some bad bets on the yen.

He hid the losses for years by putting fake trades on the books and bullying colleagues.

JOHN RUSNAK: We'll just turn this on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRY CLEANING MACHINE)

LANAHAN: After serving over five years in prison, Rusnak has spent his probation quietly franchising outlets of the ZIPS Dry Cleaner chain.

RUSNAK: The ZIPS concept is based on volume. You know, we can do this for a lot cheaper.

LANAHAN: It began with stroke of luck in the form of a wealthy friend of a friend named Harvey Rothstein.

RUSNAK: I went on a fishing trip about a month before I went to jail and Harvey said, you know, when you get out, I'll take care of you, it's going to be all right, don't worry, your life's going to be restored, you're going to have a normal life when you get out.

LANAHAN: Rothstein kept his word. He hired Rusnak right out of an East Baltimore halfway house to help find efficiencies in his business. And when Rusnak proposed the dry cleaner plan, Rothstein was one of the first investors.

HARVEY ROTHSTEIN: I recognized there, but the grace of God goes I.

LANAHAN: Here's Rothstein.

ROTHSTEIN: Because I have friends far brighter than I am, and I grew up in a slum neighborhood in New York City, and we all did things that we could have gone to jail for, including me. Because we thought it was fun like stealing cars for joy rides, except that's a felony.

LANAHAN: Rothstein had given him a second chance. And that inspired Rusnak to give second chances to others. He helps juveniles in adult prisons find jobs and mentors when they get out, and at his dry cleaner outlets, he says he's hired six people out of prison and over 30 out of drug recovery houses.

Two years ago, Noah Shefrin started working for Rusnak at $8 an hour while living at a recovery house following a heroin addiction. Now the 23-year-old is managing one of Rusnak's ZIPS outlets. And, he says, he's still clean.

NOAH SHEFRIN: I've gone through like things in recovery that are tough, and like where I've made mistakes, and like John's been like one of those phone calls I've made, and like, hey, like this is what happened, I screwed up, like I need help, and like he's been there.

LANAHAN: When Rusnak made his first visit back to church after prison, he spied a former Allfirst colleague and ducked out a side door. He's since shared his story with a large men's group at that church, and his pastor, Pat Goodman, finds that courageous.

PASTOR PAT GOODMAN: 'Cause it was out there. I mean, you know, it's on the front page of the Baltimore Sun, and most of us don't have our failures out in bright lights like that.

LANAHAN: Thing is, Rusnak already had a reputation as a churchgoing man before - and while - he defrauded Allfirst. After that, of course, he gained a new reputation: as a master of deception. Gene Ludwig was hired by Allfirst's parent, Allied Irish Bank, to do the forensics on Rusnak's scheme.

GENE LUDWIG: It was enormously clever in terms of the way it unfolded.

LANAHAN: What stunned Ludwig wasn't the $691 million that Rusnak lost, but his ability to go undetected for over four years.

LUDWIG: In that sense, given the longevity, as I say, this is really a major event in financial history.

LANAHAN: Six of Rusnak's colleagues were fired after the discovery. Another, who asked to remain anonymous, said the work atmosphere afterward was like a wake. Other attempts to interview Rusnak's former colleagues were unsuccessful, and you can't blame people for wanting to leave the whole episode behind them. Allfirst, in one form or another, had been in the community for two centuries, and Gene Ludwig says employees at banks like that are driven by a sense of civic purpose.

LUDWIG: This kind of a shot out of the blue is incredibly wrenching; you know, people will always ask themselves, could I have found it or should I have found it, or why did I miss it. Because that will be with them for the rest of their lives, some of these people.

LANAHAN: Rusnak says he apologizes when he bumps into people from his past, and he doesn't reach out to those who've said they don't want to be in touch.

RUSNAK: I know that I'll never be able to make up for the mistakes I made - financially, emotionally, relationally, so all I can do is start from here and try to do the best thing possible.

LANAHAN: Rusnak has paid a thousand dollars a month in court-ordered restitution since his release, for a total so far of a little over $50,000. At that rate, it would take him 57,000 years to pay off the rest.

For NPR News, I'm Lawrence Lanahan in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.