Helen Sharkey is a felon. That sentence seems in every way to be wrong, even as I write it. Helen Sharkey is a mom of Tae Kwon Do twins, a loving wife, a faithful friend. She is a diminutive dynamo, energetically expressing truth, thoughtfully responding to questions. She is a star, a top accounting graduate of Southwestern University with a Big 4 pedigree who had a rising career in the energy industry. But, there it is again. Helen Sharkey is a felon.
In perhaps, the most eloquent expression of remorse that I have heard in many years, Ms. Sharkey told the story in my Ethics class of her fall from grace at Dynegy a decade ago. She spoke of the people who influenced her, of the pressures she felt, of the key turning points when failing to “listen to her gut” diverted her life in ways she could never have imagined. She became, with her decisions, what in retrospect is the one thing she never wanted to be: Googlable.
And that Googlability is what triggered the introspection necessary to allow her to speak about her experience to a broader audience. Since she got out of federal prison in late 2006, she has quietly raised her children with her husband and led a “normal” life out of the public spotlight. She has established the connections that have allowed her to flourish, perhaps influenced by a reticence to trust broadly that comes both from being “perp walked” and from watching others more involved in your crime never get indicted.
But her eyes were opened to the fact that in a fully searchable world, her sons were quickly coming to the age where she would have to explain that, in her own words, “Mommy is a felon.” This not only permitted introspection, it made that process urgent. Ms. Sharkey needed to understand her story so that she could explain it to two boys coming of age. And the result of walking through that process is a lucidity to her message that few people can match.
Being in that room was like watching a match dropped on dry tinder. In the midst of a draining week, I was locked on each word of her story, as was virtually everyone in the room. She spoke in measured tones, but she was able to convey the changing emotions of each stage of her ordeal in her voice and in her eyes. Standing behind a podium meant to protect her, she opened her heart and her life to a group of students I am asking to examine theirs. And she opened them to me as well.
She did not have to dramatize, because the room was walking with her through her boss’s detachment from correspondence related to the structured finance transaction that was her downfall, and through the New York meeting that sealed the deal when her boss did not backstop her. Her stomach in knots, she said, “For the first time in my life, I gave up on myself.” We could feel the impact of the Wall Street Journal article revealing the transaction, the subsequent criminal investigation, the tightening noose of the indictment, with the U.S. attorneys referring to her as “smart and articulate,” as an “alchemist.” What followed—Dynegy cutting off legal funding, losing her job at Chevron, being alongside of her father as he died of cancer—are the things that make any reasonable person shudder. She did not have to serve the five-year sentence that could have been her fate based on her guilty plea. But she felt the incalculable pain of leaving her twin babies to walk into a federal prison.
It was hard to pull the students away from her after class. I heard one say that she would stay all day if she could. Until she came to my class, I had never met Helen Sharkey. I have dealt with these issues professionally for many years. I am not purely clinical, because I care deeply about people’s outcomes. I am always rooting and praying for my students to avoid these paths. But, if they walk down them, I want to be a redemptive voice who gives them hope that there is more to life than their failure.
I have never known how to do that effectively. But I know someone who does. Her name is Helen Sharkey.