Saturday, May 11, 2002

Risky business

Foundation crumbles for builder

        Let's say you're a big shot who gets into money trouble. You:

        A. Stop spending so much.

        B. Declare bankruptcy and start over.

        C. Continue buying rounds at the country club and throwing parties at your mansion. Engage in shady business practices. Victimize dozens of middle-class innocents. Smile and slap backs.

        C is the choice of cowardly men with bloated egos and greedy hearts. Alas, Northern Kentucky may well have a big shot who fits the profile.

        Developer Bill Erpenbeck was arrested on a bad-check charge Friday, and the FBI has confirmed it's investigating his company for fraud. The most serious allegation: About $15 million in checks intended for lending agencies were instead retained by the Erpenbeck Co., which deposited them at Peoples Bank.

        Home buyers who thought their titles were free and clear are now discovering otherwise. A class-action suit has been filed against Peoples on their behalf.

        The scandal may well destroy the Erpenbeck Co., which had done about $80 million in annual sales across Greater Cincinnati. Most of its employees have been laid off.

        The many acquaintances of Bill Erpenbeck are slack-jawed with amazement.

Avoiding reality

        The sickest part is the way he played the socialite while likely presiding over a financial house of cards.

        A former star athlete at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Erpenbeck gave generously to politicians and entertained at his Crestview Hills mansion. He also has a Florida condo, a 40-foot boat and luxury cars.

        This is typical, experts tell me. With some men, self-esteem is tied so closely to possessions and status that they continue living large even while doing business dishonestly.

        The news is full of such characters. David R. Hunter, for instance, ran a title insurance company in Lincoln, Neb., that was $50 million in debt. Unbeknownst to his family, he was using clients' money to cover bad checks, all the while throwing lavish parties and building a million-dollar home, the Associated Press reported in January.

Different motives

        Men and women have different reasons for choosing the wrong path, says Dr. Judith Collins, an industrial psychologist at Michigan State University. In a major study eight years ago, she interviewed about 80 women and some 700 men imprisoned for white-collar crimes.

        “Every single one of the women did it for someone else — "because my boyfriend was in trouble and needed money,' or because they didn't have enough money to pay for the needs of their family,” Dr. Collins found.

        “Not one man did it for someone else. Many of them claimed they were innocent. Many said, "I had to do it to stay in business. I had to to do it because the guy down the street was doing it.'”

        There's also a culture of risk- taking that encourages such behavior, says Henry Chambers Jr., an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri.

        In business, successful risks can be richly rewarded, he says. “Consequently, you may view risky conduct as being simply the way the world works,” he says.

        In Bill Erpenbeck's case, not anymore.

        Contact: (859) 578-5584 or


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