Harker welcomed international speaker Patrick Kuhse to the Saratoga campus on Dec. 2 for a special talk on ethics, and how good people can be led to make unethical decisions. Kuhse, who appeared courtesy of the Honor Council, is in high demand as a speaker on ethics at businesses and universities across the country, and is an ethics fellow at the University of Florida and Suffolk University.
Kuhse used his own life story as an allegory, interweaving the autobiographical tale with examples of what he called critical thinking errors: entitlement, arrogance, rationalization and so on. A reformed criminal who spent four years in prison for his involvement in illegally benefiting from Oklahoma state funds, Kuhse began his story at Arizona State University. While studying finance, he made many friends who he said were very eager to make money and become wealthy. This “take no prisoners” attitude that he witnessed in his younger years, Kuhse said, has not changed much in the years leading up to today.
“I’m very, very heavily involved in academics. Do you think I’m seeing any shift or change from my generation to yours?” he asked the audience. “Not so much.”
Kuhse later dropped out of college and eventually found work in finance in the early 1980s. His ambition and seemingly limitless drive to succeed made him quite successful, and in the ensuing years he moved all over the country with his family in the pursuit of greater opportunities. Moving to San Diego, he became a financial adviser to professional athletes, traveling frequently to meet with clients. After mentioning to his two sons one day that he would be bringing home the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl, Kuhse recalled, “my boys were looking at me, like, ‘Daddy, what’s a Super Bowl?’”
His obsession with becoming rich led him to become “emotionally unavailable” to his family. “The definition of wealth for me was money,” he declared. “If I made more money, I could buy them more things.”
By the end of the 1980s, Kuhse’s business was thriving, with offices located throughout the country. “I had the American dream,” he said. It was around this time that he received a call from a friend in Oklahoma, who planned to manage the campaign for a friend who was running for state treasurer. If her friend won, she would have a job in the treasurer’s office. Kuhse’s friend offered to send him money to invest on behalf of the state of Oklahoma, in exchange for kickbacks. Though illegal, the deal had the potential to create opportunities in the future.
“How do you know linguistically you’re sliding into an entitlement mode? When you change your ‘wants’ to ‘needs,’” he cautioned the audience. Changing wants into needs enables people to rationalize their misdeeds, making them seem less harmful than they actually are. “When we start to need something instead of want it, we’re starting to steel our minds and prepare ourselves to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do.”
Kuhse’s friend wound up getting the job at the treasurer’s office, and they began making deals. Nearly two years later, Kuhse was up $6 million. Then a bitter, recently fired employee complained to the FBI about the practices of Kuhse’s associate. The FBI came calling, and Kuhse was even featured in a report on ABC News. Faced with jail time, Kuhse uprooted his family and fled with them to Costa Rica.
“The next day, my boys woke up in a country they’d never heard of, a language they didn’t speak and a school where they didn’t know [anybody],” he said. “Who are the real victims of our unethical behavior? All of our loved ones are impacted by everything we do.”
It turned out that Costa Rica wasn’t far enough. After seven months, armed Interpol agents kicked down Kuhse’s door. He ran out the back. “I thought, ‘Kill me now? I win. You didn’t put me in prison,’” Kuhse recollected with bitter humor. “That’s how messed up I was.”
He remained on the run from authorities for four years. Fed up, Kuhse’s then-wife moved back to San Diego with their two sons. While watching his family depart, Kuhse finally decided to turn himself in. “It was time to stop, time to quit being a victim, time to take accountability,” he said.
After spending a month in a Costa Rican prison, Kuhse was extradited to the U.S. to serve the rest of his prison term. He called the prison visiting room “the most depressing place on earth. All these little kids want their daddies to go home with them.” He added, “It’s not the inmate that does the time, it’s the family.”
His children were so depressed, Kuhse said, they even told others that he had died. “This is their way of handling it, and this is what happened to me because my vision of wealth was not what my parents taught me. It was money,” he said.
Kuhse earned his college degree while serving his term, and was released in 2001. He got a job as a truck driver and began giving talks as part of his community service obligations. It was during this time that he decided to begin his speaking career. After Kuhse’s community service hours were completed, he received a call from his probation officer, who wanted to know which box to check to indicate the job Kuhse would be taking. The officer got quite a laugh when Kuhse said he planned to become a motivational speaker.