CHICAGO - It's a Sunday afternoon in the Windy City, a mild 37° F for January on Lake Michigan. Wally Mohammad is seated at a table in the south building of McCormick Place.
``We always ride the edge of breaking the rules out here, in the business world,'' said the plastics industry executive, leaning forward in his chair. ``Some of us do get caught; some never do.''
Mohammad, a former vice president of manufacturing for Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based Courtesy Corp., was released Dec. 13 from Duluth Federal Prison Camp in Minnesota. He had been sentenced in fall 2000 for federal mail fraud.
But even before he officially completed his prison term, Mohammad set himself apart from other white-collar criminals by being appointed to an executive position at an injection molding firm. He began Jan. 7 as vice president of manufacturing for Chicago-based Stepco Corp.
Stepco President Bill Morici knows the background, but he stands by Mohammad, who will have a leading role as the company restructures.
``I can't pass judgment on people unless it was personally done to me. He's trying hard to show what kind of person he is. If he was still employed with Stepco at the time of his jailing, he would still have had a job when he came out,'' Morici said. ``It's that simple.''
Mohammad's black hair is decorated with gray patches as though painted with impatient strokes. Staring down at his hands, he recalled how easy it was to get wrapped up in temptation.
Riding off the edge
Mohammad defrauded Courtesy of $770,000 by depositing money from the sale of scrap and virgin resin into an account he had established. The company sued Mohammad in 1995. The suit was settled that same year: Mohammad paid back all the money, including lawyers' fees, for a total of $973,000.
It's still unclear how the case came to the government's attention, but a criminal charge was filed just before the statute of limitations expired in 2000.
``I'm sorry for what I did. I'm very remorseful. I'll never do that again in my life, ever,'' Mohammad said. ``I've never even had a traffic ticket. It's just one of those things where you justify it to yourself. A little bit of money is better, then a little more is better. Money is not everything. Money comes and goes. Family is what you miss the most up there [in prison camp]. Nothing else. Family and friends is what you miss.''
When he was jailed in October 2000, Mohammad was just a few months into his job as vice president of manufacturing at American Louver Co., an injection molding firm in Skokie, Ill. At the time, company officials had no idea what happened to Mohammad, who told his employer he was taking time off to care for a sick relative.
``Because of the shame and the embarrassment, I never said anything to Geoff Glass before I left,'' Mohammad said. Glass is American Louver's chief operating officer. ``Even to this day, I'm embarrassed about this whole situation. I should have been up front with him.''
Glass declined to comment.
Mohammad spent 15 years with Courtesy, one of three plastics firms he has worked with since emigrating from Pakistan in 1971. He worked his way up in the firm, starting out as a night-shift supervisor.
Walter Kreiseder, former owner of Courtesy Corp., was Mohammad's boss. Today, Kreiseder said he wishes Mohammad well.
``I'm happy he found a job, especially in this job environment,'' Kreiseder said in a Jan. 17 telephone interview.
``He served his time and I wish him well and life goes on. ... Other people make mistakes, too, and they've paid their dues and that doesn't make them bad for the rest of their lives.''
Mohammad said he does not have ill feelings or animosity toward anyone at Courtesy. After he left Courtesy in 1995, Mohammad joined Stepco as a plant manager. At the time, Morici was sales manager. In 2000, Mohammad was let go as part of a companywide layoff.
``Wally worked with me for five years ... and I can't say anything but good about him,'' said Robert Wille, retired president and a co-owner of Stepco. ``He has a good working knowledge and grasp of plastics. This experience and his aggressiveness to succeed will do him very well.''
In a recent interview at the International Housewares Show in Chicago, Morici joked with Mohammad about the weight he lost in prison and the extra gray hair. Growing more serious, Mohammad's new boss labels him as the perfect man to help lead Stepco through its restructuring.
``I'm not too concerned about what other people think of us. I'm more concerned in satisfying our current and future customers' needs and, regardless of his background, it's something we were not involved in,'' Morici said.
``When he was employed by us, he performed at a level that met all of our expectations. There was never any evidence that Wally tried to defraud Stepco.''
Morici, who was appointed president of the $18 million company a year ago, put his own management team in place and could not find a person to lead manufacturing.
``I had interviewed several people,'' he said. ``I just wasn't happy with the entire package. Wally contacted me and I hired him the day he came in.''
Asked if he was concerned about appointing Mohammad to the same position that he held at Courtesy, Morici said: ``The way the company is structured, it would never cross my mind. I have no concerns. ... Wally is a great incentive to people trying to pick up the molding end of the business. He handles people very well and I think he's good for any organization.''
Charles Fasano, a staff associate with John Howard Association, a Chicago-based, not-for-profit firm dedicated to jail and prison reform, said Mohammad's success finding a job after prison is unusual.
``Even for people who do have skills, it's very rare,'' he said. ``One of the things we are always fighting [for] is people getting their lives back together and finding jobs.''
Fasano said ex-convicts typically do not repeat the same offense, especially under supervised release, like Mohammad.
``They're not likely to think about it again because they could be reincarcerated at the drop of a hat,'' Fasano said. Mohammad will be under supervised release for two years.
Despite the bleak economy and his tarnished background, Mohammad had other job prospects after prison. Andy Kovari, co-owner of Mr. Chips Inc., was considered hiring Mohammad. Kovari and said he would continue to stand by Mohammad.
``I was in contact with him while he was in jail and we talked about him working with us or us helping him find placement,'' said the co-owner of the Chicago-based game product manufacturer. ``The position back at Stepco proves that people who know him trust him enough.''
Mohammad is an openly spiritual Muslim who says he is a better person now for the time he spent in the prison camp. He learned to speed read, tutored other inmates and walked 40 miles each weekend. In the end, he even submitted a plan to the warden on how to better manage the prison. Prison officials confirmed that Mohammad submitted the plan, but did not confirm if it was being implemented.
``Out of this negative situation, I made it positive and I emerged a better person,'' Mohammad said. ``I'm more mature, I'm smarter, I can read better and make better decisions with people.''
Mike Miller, education program manager with the prison camp, confirmed that Mohammad was an exceptional inmate.
``He's one of those guys who comes by every so often who goes the extra mile,'' Miller said about Mohammad's willingness to tutor other men in math. ``He's a good guy, just a phenomenal guy who spent countless hours of his own time helping other people. He was very, very unique in the sense that you don't see that kind of work ethic.''