Twenty years ago, Dallas high society fell hard for a squat, balding, Mafia-don lookalike named Ron Cohen. At the city's ritziest restaurants and most exclusive parties, the money manager would hold sway, swigging scotch and regaling white-glove attorneys, doctors, and executives with tales of his 30% monthly returns and magician-like ability to pick the winners. Before long, the high-roller would simply open his mouth, and the socialites would write their checks--at one point, $80 million worth.
What Cohen didn't tell his clients, who also included suspected drug traffickers, was how he was jetting off to Las Vegas with their cash, leveraging their accounts to the hilt, and paying them phony profits with newcomers' deposits. His operation, far from being the sure-bet money factory he said it was, turned out to be the biggest Ponzi scheme Dallas has ever known.
More amazing is that the smooth-talking Cohen, who started marking chalkboards at brokerage houses in Seattle when he was just 13, didn't do this just once but three times. Each time he went to prison, and each time he came out, only to start the whole scam over again, sometimes re-seducing the same investors.
His last sentence at Texarkana ended in January, 2000. It was during that four-year stint that Cohen, 54, says he finally accepted he was an alcoholic, got psychological treatment, started taking Prozac, and became inspired by an idea for what he claims is his first legitimate business venture, the Dallas-based Client Advisory Group.
The company is the nation's only felon-run consulting service that preps newly convicted white-collar crooks on what to expect once they get to prison, coaching them about how to make their hard time easier--a sort of school for scoundrels. Already, Cohen has won endorsements from several heavy-hitting defense lawyers, plus the former U.S. Attorney and private eye who first helped put him away.
Cohen recognized his market niche a few years ago when he watched a bank exec, convicted of taking kickbacks, show up for his first day of prison wearing a Rolex, a Fila jogging suit, and a brand-new pair of Air Jordans. (You can't bring any of your own gear inside.) The felon then expected to order up a furlough for the following weekend like it was a dinner reservation. (Furloughs are virtually nonexistent today.) The white-collar con also brought along his own fridge--"half the A&P, for Chrissakes," Cohen recalls--and the assumption that he would be able to order in pizza and have conjugal visits in his private room. (No to all of the above.)
Who told him all this would fly? "His lawyer!" yells Cohen, who speaks in a motivational-speaker stream of exclamation points. "It's beyond ridiculous!" Cohen noticed that a lot of white-collar crooks, represented by some of the nation's best lawyers, were utterly clueless about life behind bars, from former VIPs who thought prisons had golf courses to those afraid of getting raped. Some showed up waving a panoply of platinum, only to learn that the prison commissary just accepts money orders. Others thought they would be allowed to continue overseeing their empires, or at least day trade, only to be forced to forfeit their cell phones and laptops and have all their calls monitored. Most forgot to bring the one thing felons are allowed: a phone list with all of their numbers. Another shocker: They wouldn't be doing time with their own kind. With fewer arrests for white-collar crime and prison overcrowding, these former moguls often have to bunk up with street thugs.
So, for $150 an hour, Cohen coaches scofflaws on everything from how to ace the pre-sentencing investigation to requesting a palm-tree-lined Club Fed to how to cope with those nearly inevitable Dear John letters. But the most valuable information Cohen provides, clients such as 31-year-old Benjamin Ashe say, is about how to shave time off of their sentences. Had Ashe, an executive at a prominent D.C. real estate company, never met Cohen, the convicted diamond-and-cocaine smuggler would have made the same mistake a lot of swindlers make: requesting a facility near home. Cohen said to ask for a prison where Ashe could get another college degree and enroll in a 500-hour drug-and-alcohol program that would cut 20% off his five-year sentence.
CRAB CAKES. With Cohen's help, Ashe reported this month to the Morgantown (W.Va.) facility, which not only offers those programs but also steak and crab-cake dinners, a nutritionist, and a playroom for Ashe's visits with his son. Ashe says Cohen also helped him prepare psychologically, adjusting to a life without his sapphire-blue Jaguar S and first-class travel. Instead of his custom-made Armani suits, he'll be picking his pants out of a prison catalog. Moreover, Cohen is helping him prepare to lose control of his life, take orders from people with less education and less money, and battle a mental boredom that only convicts know. "I'm closer to him than I am to my lawyer," Ashe says.
So far, Client Advisory Group is a low-overhead gig. Cohen runs it with one cell phone and no assistant from his home, a bare-bones room in Dallas' Homewood Suites Hotel that's big enough to have his 7-year-old son Dak--who he named after the Nasdaq--for an overnight stay. ("Try getting a rental if you're an ex-con!")
When Cohen gets a new referral, he informs his parole officer and takes the next flight to meet the client. At first, defense attorneys were leery of recommending Cohen to their clients. Some agreed to meet with him only out of curiosity--to get a real-life sighting of the Dallas legend. But after Cohen had some success with his first few felons, word spread through the legal community, where Cohen circulated marketing materials, including a resume that lists "10-plus years as an inmate" and "served time in five different federal institutions."
Cohen's big break came last October when he was invited to speak at the tony American Board of Criminal Lawyers conference at Atlanta's Four Seasons Hotel. Since then, he has gotten referrals from 100 different lawyers and has coached 50 clients. "This is jail, not Yale!" he bellows in his Baretta-style tough talk. So far, Cohen's clients seem pleased. "I think it's something that's really needed in our profession," says New Orleans defense attorney Michael H. Ellis. Not everyone is buying Cohen's straight-world makeover, though, and there are predictions that he'll strike again. To this, Cohen thunders: "You think I'm crazy?!" One more misstep, and the colorful con man knows he'd be heeding his own advice--for life.
By Michelle Conlin in New York