ATLANTA — It's been nearly seven years, but retired FBI special agent Oliver Halle can still remember sitting in a small Atlanta coffee shop listening to Diann Cattani spill her soul.
He asked simple questions, and she talked for nearly three hours. Through all of it, he was listening for phrases like "sweat equity," "they shortchanged me," or "they never paid me what I was worth."
Instead there were phrases like, "they treated me like family and I stabbed them in the back," "I stole this money," and "I'm the one to blame."
"I'm listening," Halle told the Deseret News. "I'm not saying anything, but I'm thinking, 'wow, this is incredible.' Most criminals don't do that."
Then they got to Cattani's background.
Born in Preston, Idaho. Fourth of seven children. Attended BYU on a volleyball scholarship. And yes, she's a Mormon.
At that detail, Halle remembers laughing, and Cattani asked him what was so funny.
"I looked her right in the eye and said, "Mormons don't do what you did,'" Halle said.
"You're exactly right, they don't," was Cattani's response. "I'm a disgrace to my family and my church.'"
Cattani, 45, can pinpoint the moment her moral, ethical upbringing got temporarily pushed aside by the pressures of a fast-paced lifestyle, an entitlement mentality and the shimmering vice of greed.
Soon, the "gray area" between right and wrong expanded, and Cattani, an accountant for a specialized human resources consulting firm in Atlanta, found herself justifying false invoices, charging the office for personal expenses and even reimbursing herself multiple times for a single purchase.
"I knew I could get away with anything and I became a runaway train," she said.
Over the next 3 1/2 years, Cattani siphoned away nearly $500,000 from employers she regarded as family. After confessing, she lost her job, her marriage, 18 months of freedom and any chance at a professional future.
Now, with a felony label permanently affixed, Cattani tours the country with Halle, warning everyone from college students to CEOs about the slippery slope of rationalization and that greed is no respecter of people — even upstanding, moral Christians.
"People need to know how insidious the temptation is, how something seemingly simple and innocuous at the time can mushroom and snowball," she said. "Be aware. Don't (think) that it could never happen to you."
It's a message needed now more than ever, she said, especially with today's crushing economic pressures to succeed and even just survive.
In fact, in the 2010 Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, in 43 percent of the cases they studied, the perpetrator had displayed the red flag of "living beyond means" before detection, and another 36 percent displayed "financial difficulties."
Since the recession, estimated to have begun in late 2007, one FBI statistic shows that nationwide mortgage fraud cases spiked from 1,644 cases in 2008 to nearly 2,800 cases in 2009.
"A bad economy is always going to drive up crime in general and white-collar crime in particular," said Richard Hamp, an assistant Utah Attorney General who focuses on fraud. "It will make people teetering on the edge fall over, and in their minds become more justified in taking advantage of another person."
A perfect beginning
Besides the daily sibling competition for the remote control, the favorite chair or the final slice of pie, Cattani describes her growing up years as easy, with school and sports achievements coming naturally.
In her small hometown of Preston, Idaho, Cattani ran track and played softball and basketball. She also helped her volleyball team win the state championship in 1984, which led to a volleyball scholarship from BYU, where she played from 1984 to 1987.
After graduating from BYU in business management and psychology, Cattani was eager to move beyond the confines of Preston and Provo, and to take a break from the rigors of sports practices and homework.
She set out for Atlanta on the advice of a cousin and immediately fell in love with the city, quickly signing up with the Atlanta Snow Ski Club and the Atlanta Water Ski Club, and taking up road racing and mountain biking.
Her first serious job was at a new, small and specialized human resources consulting firm as one of their first employees.
Likeable, outgoing and efficient, Cattani was handed more and more responsibilities, moving from upgrading the bookkeeping system and implementing benefits packages to hiring additional staff and training clients. Eight hour shifts became 10-, 12- and 14-hour days, and Cattani remained constantly "on call." Yet she was happy, and enjoyed her bosses and their generous bonuses.
Her career, and that of her now ex-husband's, whom she had met in Atlanta, also launched them into fast, high-stakes circles.
They were invited guests at the White House, dined with George and Barbara Bush and attended birthday parties in the homes of U.S. senators. Taking in an Atlanta Braves' game meant sitting next to then-general manager John Schuerholz in his sky box, a much more pleasant experience when the team was winning, Cattani said.
"It was certainly an ego thing," she said. "They were all so much older than me, and I was too young and naive to really step back. I just figured I should have everything they have, even though they were 50 and I was 27."
The fraud triangle
Halle and other fraud experts point out that by now, the first two pieces of the "fraud triangle" — opportunity and pressure — were firmly in place.
The third piece materialized when Cattani realized that their Christmas plane tickets to Utah had been put on her corporate — not personal — American Express.
Not a big deal, she thought. I'll straighten it out when I get back.
But she didn't.
Weeks passed and she said she'd reimburse the company from her next check. Or the next one. But it never happened.
So she began rationalizing, remembering how much of her time on the ski slopes had been spent on conference calls, and that she'd dealt with daily phone calls from the staff. It hadn't really been a vacation, she told herself.
Now, the fraud triangle was complete.
And with one situation justified, it was easy to keep going.
The gray areas got bigger and blacker.
If the owners called and asked that she go let out their dog because they were snowed in on a business trip, she would make the drive, wrestle with the dog who hated her and then pad her check with hazard pay.
After Cattani had her first child and began working from home, it made sense that the company should pay for her new office furniture and even food and gas, since she was still traveling so often for them.
She began making dummy invoices, reimbursing herself multiple times and adjusting the books along the way to make everything "fit."
Along with opportunity, pressure and rationalization, Kennesaw State University accounting professor Dana Hermanson and his colleague David T. Wolfe have proposed a "fraud diamond," which adds the facet of "capability," which Cattani had in spades.
"In my class we look at the characteristics that you need in order to pull off a successful fraud over a long period of time," said Hermanson, who invites Cattani to speak to his forensic accounting students each semester. "Many of those characteristics, except for being a great liar, are the same kind of characteristics you'd want in an executive. They can deal with stress, they're bright, persuasive. They're very, very similar skill sets. That's part of what makes it so tough to identify who's going to do something like this."
Cattani was bright, persuasive and her bosses trusted her. Once or twice they noticed a funny number and questioned her. But she would give a careful explanation and they would let it slide, never demanding proof.
So she kept going, unable to leap off the addictive, destructive treadmill.
While Cattani holds herself solely responsible, she can now look back and see the ethical cracks in her work environment as well.
She remembers others who charged lavish wine tastings to company credit cards at gatherings that weren't for business. Or executives who called from the road to ask that she write a company check to their son, daughter or friend who needed money and assured her they would pay it back when they got back to town.
They never did.
"I take responsibility for what I did, because I know right from wrong and I clearly stole," Cattani said. "But also … I see now … how important it is to have a solid, values-based culture."
Eventually the whirlwind pace and bigger and bigger cover-ups were wreaking internal havoc and Cattani began falling seriously ill.
"I just knew it was from trying to live this facade," she said. "There was a lot of pressure. I couldn't connect with people, I couldn't let people in. I wasn't a whole person."
On a chilly Thursday in February 2000, she went to speak with her boss. She told him she'd been stealing from him.
Shocked, he asked how much. She didn't know.
As part of her rationalization process, she'd pushed aside the details, and only later, after the audit, did she realize her spree amounted to nearly half a million dollars.
The family relationship with her boss was instantly gone. And even more than 10 years later, it's still irreparably severed.
Her marriage crumbled as well. After the confession, she went to Utah for a weekend to see her family. When she got back, her husband wasn't at the airport to pick up her and her daughters.
Once she got home, she found the divorce papers on the table.
Soon after she was slapped with a federal charge of mail fraud (the federal government couldn't file an embezzlement charge) and spent almost the next year winding through the criminal, civil and divorce courts — family members traveling from Utah, Arizona or California for each important hearing along the way.
In the midst of all this, Cattani learned she was pregnant.
Six months later, Cattani was sentenced to 18 months in a federal Florida prison. The judge told her to report five weeks after she delivered her son.
Those weeks of waiting were when she finally tried to explain what was happening to her 5- and 7-year-old daughters.
"But you can't prepare your kids for something like that," she said. "You can't prepare yourself for something like that."
Cattani's parents, who had been serving an LDS humanitarian mission overseas, came home early and moved to Atlanta to take care of her children.
And together they made the five-hour drive to the Florida prison, Cattani clutching her baby son the entire time.
Once inside the prison, officers took Cattani's photograph, her fingerprints and her clothing. In return she got drab jail clothes, a bedroll and a number: 53668-019.
She was led out a back door, and as she walked down a window-lined hallway, she could see inmates on one side and her parents on the other.
Cattani's mother was holding the baby and sobbing, while her father had his arm around his wife's shoulders, tears streaming down his normally stoic face.
"This was so foreign to my family," she said. "My parents are the quintessential (example) of everything that is honest, moral and good. They gave me every opportunity, every advantage in life and here they are in excruciating pain. I did this to them."
Every other weekend for the next year and a half, Cattani's parents made the long drive to Florida to bring Cattani's children for a visit.
"Watching your daughters take off their little Gap fleece sweatshirts and (seeing the guards) open a little Barbie purse and pull out the lip gloss and go through it, and seeing your parents getting patted down is not something you get over," Cattani said.
Yet vowing to stay positive, Cattani spent a lot of time reading, pondering, and walking, trying to untangle the mess her life had become.
"I did a lot of introspection," she said. "Redefining who I am, what I want to be. And when I came out of prison I was probably about as healthy as I'd ever been."
Cattani walked out of prison into the welcoming arms of family members, but even with their unfailing love and support, she can never earn back all that she lost.
Cattani can't get a credit card, nor can she coach her daughters' basketball or volleyball teams. Her chances of getting a job with benefits are the same as winning the lottery, and if she ever gets stopped for a traffic violation, a check on her driver's license will automatically bring up that she's a convicted felon.
Roughly one half of the required restitution was paid with money from her divorce settlement, but Cattani still writes a check to her former employers each month, slowly chipping away at the more than $200,000 she still owes.
"What she faces is unbelievable financial stress every day of her life," Halle said. "What Diann and (others) did, their prison sentences began after they got out of prison, not while they were there. They have life sentences."
And Cattani's punishment affects everyone she loves.
Her daughters, now 14 and 12, initially struggled with her openness regarding her past misdeeds. (She's currently grappling with how to tell her 8-year-old son.)
As an attempt to explain, one night Cattani gave them an envelope of thank-you notes from high school students who had listened to one of her presentations.
Forty-five minutes later her daughters came to hug her with tears in their eyes.
"We understand why you do this," they told her. "Because you don't want it to happen to somebody else."
Spreading the message
Despite different names and dates, there was nothing unique about Cattani's crime; Halle had seen dozens just like it.
In fact, after 28 years with the FBI, 17 of those in the white-collar crime division, he'd investigated far too many heartbreaking cases of educated, professional, middle- and upper-class people who made terrible, life-destroying decisions.
"I couldn't understand it," the veteran agent said. "These are the people with all the benefits of life, they had every advantage, why are they getting in trouble?"
As he neared retirement, Halle wanted to create a program that would address the common mistakes and thinking errors that lead people from prosperous careers to prison cells.
He also wanted executives to realize how fraud happens and how it affects their businesses. The ACFE estimates that the typical organization worldwide loses 5 percent of its annual revenue to fraud.
"Fraud can hurt you worse than you think," said Allan Bachman, education manager for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. "It's not just a matter of being deprived of the economic asset, but it creates public relations issues, morale issues, corporate culture issues. Recovering from a fraud can be a very costly process."
So, together with Cattani, who tracked him down after she got out of prison, and Josh Kenyon, the former chief of staff for the Fulton County Commission chairman in Atlanta who served six months in prison for accepting bribes, Halle now travels the country speaking about "taking the harder right."
His program is based on a prayer at West Point, where cadets vow to "choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong."
The trio each shares perspectives from their various vantage points: law enforcement, public or private sector. And regardless of their audience, the overall message is the same, Halle said.38 comments on this story
"Don't think that because you have a strong religious faith and a strong moral and ethical upbringing that you can't either be tempted to, or make, a terrible, terrible choice," Halle said. "(Diann) is an example of a truly good person from a truly, truly, good, moral, religious, ethical background, who for a lot of different reasons made a wrong turn that has had life-long consequences."
Cattani emphasizes that small missteps, when rationalized, can quickly lead to bigger problems — even if it's something as minor as parking where you shouldn't.
"We rationalize all the time," she warns. "Rationalizing makes what we might be doing wrong right, and there's no right way to do wrong."