ABC sent Blast a preview of tonight’s Nightline, where they interview wives of convicted white-collar criminals.
By ANDREA CANNING, ELIZABETH STUART and TOM McCARTHY
Each week Leslie Scrushy makes a two-hour drive with her kids to see her husband, Richard, in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas. “It’s a scary place,” she said. “But thousands of wives and girlfriends and friends make this journey all over the country every week. So I’m not alone in doing this.”
The couple was once the toast of Birmingham, Ala., with a fortune of some $300 million.
That was until Richard Scrushy was found liable in a civil suit for $2.8 billion in one of the priciest judgments in the history of corporate scandals. Scrushy was acquitted of criminal charges in that case, but in a separate case, was convicted of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud, landing him a seven-year sentence in federal prison.
Watch the full story on “Nightline” tonight at 11:35 p.m.
Within months, Leslie Scrushy became one of those women you see in designer suits walking in and out of court on the arm of her disgraced husband. She is now a member of an exclusive, if not vaunted, club: the formerly rich wives of husbands busted for white-collar crimes.
Leslie Scrushy said the family was working through the crisis.
“We just make the best of it,” she said. “[The kids are] not sad, they’re not depressed to be going to prison — they’re excited to be going to see their dad.”
In his first interview from prison, Richard Scrushy spoke to “Nightline” about the sacrifices his family is making. We spoke by phone, because the prison would not permit our cameras in.
“Sometimes I wonder if the judges realize that they punish the families many times more than they punish the inmate,” Scrushy said. “You’re in a horrible situation in here, and the other thing people don’t realize, we only have 10 minutes a day to talk to our family. I mean, it averages — we have 300 minutes a month. Every second is precious. Every second, every minute is precious and when you get a child on the phone and you talk three-four minutes… Those little children I have raised — you know, my little boy came in, he was in diapers. He was just 2 years old. And I’ve watched him– now he’s 5 years old.”
Scrushy maintains his innocence.
“So imagine sitting in a prison for 29 months knowing that you’ve done nothing wrong, you should not be here,” he said. “It’s been extremely difficult. I’ve had some really good friends that I’ve made in here over time, people that are in here as well. … Their being here is questionable, probably shouldn’t be here and I don’t know. It’s a tough situation but we get through. I’m in here with a lot of other men that have a lot of the same struggles that I have.”
‘I Believed Him’
Leslie Scrushy said she had asked her husband about the accusations against him before he was convicted.
“I didn’t say ‘Are you guilty,’ I said, ‘Did you know?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not know.’ … I believed him.”
Once, the Scrushys had their own church and television ministry, their own health care business called Healthsouth, a yacht, 19 cars and two 15,000-square-foot mansions. Then came the moment six years ago when Leslie realized her husband was in big trouble.
“That would be when the FBI raided Healthsouth and charges were leveled against Richard and every dollar that we had was frozen,” she said. “I was on the phone with a friend who was seeing it on the news. The ticker was reading on the television.”
Richard Scrushy was accused of defrauding Medicare and falsifying profits.
“It’s really — it can be scary, it can be — it’s difficult, it’s painful,” Leslie Scrushy said. “My husband was found guilty. And in that moment, it’s just, how could this be happening? … One of the most difficult things is people thinking that you are something that you are not.”
Their life literally went on the auction block: furniture, boats, priceless artwork, all sold to the highest bidder. But perhaps even more painful was the social backlash. Friends turned their backs. The Scrushys were even asked to leave a function at their own church.
“There would be things written about me that would be very untrue,” said Leslie Scrushy. “There are people that rejoice at our suffering. That’s painful. There’s some knowledge that was gained there. … It’s been a benefit, when you lose it all, to find out really the truth about who your friends are.”
For Leslie it was a huge challenge. But even though it would have been easier to walk away from her husband, she didn’t. She says she’d live through it all again because of what she learned in the process.
“I want to say that the money made me happy, but it didn’t,” she said. “If you were to go and ask me what’s the most horrific part of all this, it’s not having our family together. … I do know that I have a wealth of information about a whole lot of stuff that I didn’t know seven years ago.”
Leslie uprooted their children from Birmingham to Beaumont to be closer to their father.
Now the visiting room at the federal correctional complex in Beaumont has basically become their family room. Scrushy and her kids try their best to make it feel like home.
“It’s where we have our family time,” she said. “They have this salad you can order — well, buy, from the vending machine. And so I’ll fix it up for Richard and crunch up some Fritos and cheese chips and make those the croutons and cook for my husband.”
It might be vending machine food, but for Leslie and her kids, it’s the new reality of family dinner.
“I will forever look back on this time — would I have chosen it? No,” said Scrushy. “But if I had to take it all away and say OK, you can go back to the faith you had before you started this whole process. But you get everything back — you get your reputation back, you get your fake friends back, you get it all back, would you go back there if life could be dandy and fabulous? … I would rather stay right here facing everything that I’m facing, separated from my husband, not knowing when it’s going to change, and know what I know about God now.”
‘How Could You Do This?
Unlike Leslie Scrushy, Karen Weinreb said she feels bitter toward her convict husband. But like Scrushy, Weinreb is grateful for the way her fall from grace changed her outlook.
Weinreb said that originally it was the seduction of wealth that fooled her.
“Meeting my husband was like my Prince Charming had come into my life,” she told ABC News. “Anywhere we wanted to go we could go. There was no limit on it. We went to the Caribbean, and if we didn’t want to shop on Madison Avenue, we flew over to Milan to buy our clothes.”
Karen and her husband, David, lived in Bedford, N.Y., an affluent suburb that is also home to Ralph Lauren, Chevy Chase and Martha Stewart. Karen, a graduate of Yale and Oxford, never knew or asked how David, a Bloomberg salesman and hedge-fund manager, was getting so rich.
“The odd signs that I was noticing in the marriage, they could have been that he was having an affair or a drinking problem,” she said. “So … in my situation there was no one indication that he might have been committing crimes. However, I would caution women to pay attention to how the finances are being kept in a marriage — and I wasn’t.”
Karen’s life changed when David pleaded guilty to stealing millions from investors. She drove him to prison, and when she returned home her new reality set in.
“I can’t even pick up the phone and call my husband … he’s gone, he’s vanished and that’s when it really hit me and I actually became very angry,” she said. “How could you do this? How could you do this to your family and leave us like this?”
Still, Karen tried to keep her family together, even visiting David behind bars with their three boys.
“I remember one visit to the jail and my baby was crying and needed to be fed,” she said, “and the guard showed up right in front of me straight away and escorted me straight out and into a concrete bathroom, and I had to sit on the floor of a concrete bathroom and breastfeed my baby in the middle of prison, and I couldn’t believe it. … How can you go any lower than that?” Her marriage ended and her social status vanished.
“In the school corridors, the people I had dined with and traveled with and were friends with for a very long time would just literally walk past me and not say hello any longer,” she said. “It was like wearing a scarlet letter. And yet I hadn’t committed the act. Unfortunately the friends that I had made at that point were friends made in a very material world. And when the money went, so did the friends.”
But Karen said she’s learned to find happiness without the money.
“I lost a lot, you know, millions of dollars in property, and my reaction was that if you could lose something like this so quickly, then it had no value,” she said. “And things that do have value could never be taken so easily. So, things like your integrity, your love for your children, creativity, religion, your education. The capacity to love, those things can never be taken from you.”
Weinreb turned her experience into a novel, “The Summer Kitchen.” Writing became the ultimate therapy, she said.
“It forced me to put myself in the shoes of the other characters in this story, namely my husband and the people who were turning their backs,” Weinreb said. “What motivated my husband to do this, and what motivated those friends to turn their backs?”
The Scrushys are still dealing with prison life, but that hasn’t stopped them from also planning their future. Richard is writing a Christian album behind bars, inspired by Leslie.
“Lord, I can’t live without you,” Richard Scrushy sang. “Such pain we suffer when we’re lost. Man leading man is not the answer. Your love and grace, that’s all. ‘Cuz victory is a choice we make.”
Leslie Scrushy said she was standing by her man.
“I’ve had a suitcase packed for him,” she said. “He will come out of this place one day, and I will be here to pick him up. And I can’t wait.”
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