Big-House Guru

Ron Cohen is just a cell-phone call away from his clients as they enter prison.
Carlton Stowers

Pacing the Addison hotel room he calls home, a cell phone pressed to his ear, Ron Cohen is speaking in a firm but understanding voice to a 26-year-old Florida man who is standing outside a federal penitentiary in Fort Dix, New Jersey, preparing to surrender himself to begin serving a 39-month sentence for drug dealing. It is nearing 2 p.m., and the apprehensive young college graduate, with just 10 minutes of freedom remaining, is asking that Cohen remind him once again of the procedure he'll go through when he steps through the front door of the prison. It is the fourth time he's called since the day began.

They have, in fact, been talking off and on since March about what the convicted felon can expect once he's locked up, everything from how to get along with guards and fellow inmates to what kind of programs are available to federal prisoners; how best to deal with the complete loss of control of his life, the grinding boredom, even the very real possibility that a "Dear John" letter will eventually come from his girlfriend.

Such is the service provided by a unique venture called The Client Advisory Group, whose purpose is to help prepare lawbreakers for the time they will spend in federal custody. For a $150-per-hour fee, Cohen walks his clients through every aspect of their upcoming incarceration.

He doesn't sugarcoat it, and certainly he speaks with a voice of authority. He's been there and done it--on four occasions. Now 55, he can look back on 10 years spent behind bars, convicted of mail and wire fraud, securities fraud and parole violation. Before being released in January 2000, the one-time high-rolling Dallas investment adviser had done time in seven different federal prisons.

Time was when the University of Washington-educated Cohen was looked upon as a financial wizard, gaining the trust of doctors, lawyers, socialites and high-ranking executives, all convinced he would turn their investments into lightning-quick fortunes. Cohen charmed them with hypnotic promises of 30 percent monthly returns on their money. What he failed to mention was his ever-increasing addiction to good scotch. Or that he was paying them phony profits with the investments of newly acquired clients. Before his scam finally imploded and he was shipped off to prison, his clients were in the hole for a total of almost $80 million.

Once released, he went right back to business. And, eventually, back to prison. Today his résumé reads like a tour of American federal correctional facilities: Seagoville, two years, mail fraud. Fort Worth, La Tuna, Phoenix, Terre Haute and Atlanta, seven years, security fraud. Seagoville again, nine months, parole violation. Texarkana, 57 months, mail and wire fraud. (Time off for good behavior shortened some of those sentences.)

"It took me a long time to learn my lesson," he admits.

It was while doing time in Texarkana that Cohen finally committed to changing his ways. He took advantage of the 500-hour in-prison treatment program for his alcoholism and began paying regular visits to the facility's psychiatrist. And soon, the idea of a legitimate business occurred to him. Watching a banker convicted of taking kickbacks arrive wearing a Rolex, jogging suit and Air Jordans and asking if it was necessary to reserve a tee time at the prison golf course, he realized that most white-collar criminals didn't have a clue what prison life was going to be like. "There was another guy," Cohen remembers, "who showed up with his own minifridge, a cell phone and convinced he would be able to order out for pizza when his wife came for weekend conjugal visits."

Such was the unfounded image of the minimum-security federal pens that house white-collar criminals. "It's bull," Cohen says. "There's no such thing as Club Fed."

Lawyers, Cohen says, might have represented their clients in the courtroom, but they did nothing to prepare them for life as a convict. That, he reflects, was where he felt he could provide a badly needed service. Dallas defense attorney Tom Mills agrees. "The truth is," he says, "lawyers have no idea what goes on in these facilities. Ron has been very helpful to me and several of my clients. One of the things he does exceptionally well is size up people and determine what kind of emotional help they're going to need to get through what lies ahead." Mills is one of many who has referred clients to Cohen.

His $150-per-hour fee, Cohen says, is sometimes paid directly by the client or a member of his family, sometimes by the client's lawyer.

Today, when a call for help comes, Cohen contacts his parole officer for the go-ahead to catch the next plane out of D-FW. Recently, he spent several days with a new client in New Orleans. Before that he'd been in Minneapolis for five days, speaking with a father and son who were looking at lengthy sentences.  

Since last June, he's counseled more than 50 clients, and his modest-at-first business has grown to a point where he's now considering hiring additional counselors. He's looking for someone who has done time, is now out and walking the straight and narrow. "And," he says, "there's a woman in Louisiana I've been talking with about counseling female convicts."

Also championing his pursuit is a former Dallas County district attorney's investigator who once helped put him away. F. David Moore, now in private practice as a forensic accountant, remembers those days when he was gathering information that would lead to Cohen's conviction. "In virtually every fraud case I ever worked," he says, "the motivation was pure greed. Ron was the exception. I think he wanted so badly to please people and to be accepted, he just couldn't bring himself to pass along the bad news that an investment he'd recommended had gone sour. So, he began robbing Peter to pay Paul, creating pressures that he simply wasn't able to handle. It was inevitable that it was all going to collapse on him.

"I know there are people still angry with him over the money they lost. I've talked with a number of them. They'll tell you they're still mad at him...but that they can't help but like the guy. The fact that he's such a personable individual has helped him greatly in his new venture, and he's doing something that I see as very worthwhile."

Mills tells of a client who confided to Cohen that he was still regularly using cocaine, even as his pre-sentence hearing neared. "The client had not admitted that to me," Mills recalls. "But when I learned it, I was able to go to the judge and explain the situation and help get him into a prison which offered a good rehab program."

Not only has Cohen won the endorsement of more than 100 defense attorneys throughout the country, he was recently the guest speaker at the American Board of Criminal Lawyers Association gathering in Atlanta. The District of Columbia Bar asked that he write an article on preparing a client for prison for its monthly newsletter and speak to its quarterly gathering in October.

"Most of the folks I deal with," he says, "never dreamed they might one day wind up in jail. Then, when the reality sets in, their life becomes a nightmare of doubt, fear and uncertainty. The sooner a guy can get some answers to the questions he's having about what is in store, the better he's going to be able to cope. I like to think that after I get involved, the nights of lying awake, worrying, come to an end."

He also extends his services to wives and parents. "In a sense, they, too, are facing time. Recently, I spoke with a father whose son was going away. He not only wanted to know what his boy could expect in prison but needed to know what was in store for him the first time he stepped into the visiting room to see his boy," he says.

That Cohen stays in touch with the inmates and families throughout the incarceration, says investigator Moore, is an added bonus.

What Cohen sells is reality. "It doesn't matter how much money your family has or how much you've got stashed away in some off-shore account," he points out. "Once you get to prison you've lost control of your life. You're not going to have wine with dinner, can't go where you please. You're going to sleep in a bed not nearly as comfortable as the one back home, listening to three or four other guys snoring every night. And you're going to be taking orders 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The trick, he says, is to make no waves and embrace no unrealistic expectations. "The sooner the inmate and his family understand that fighting the system is nonproductive, the better," he says. Among the lengthy list of "tips" he offers: Arrive at prison's door aware that you don't flaunt your financial status ("Leave the swagger at the door."); prison personnel are not there to serve you ("Don't argue with them."); avoid trying to make close friends inside ("Be cordial to everyone but don't get into any cliques."); be prepared for the fact that previous relationships may not survive ("The Dear John letter is painful, but survivable. Don't go in thinking once you come out everything is going to be the same as it was."); and, finally, stay as busy as possible ("The mental torture is the worst part of prison life.").  

Ideally, Cohen says, he receives a call before a convict has reached the pre-sentencing stage of his troubles. "I can determine if he's eligible for any programs that might help reduce his sentence. There are worthwhile programs that will not only benefit a person but could trim months off of a sentence. But, you have to know what prisons offer them."

Almost without exception, his clients initially express a desire to be placed in whatever federal facility is closest to home. "Naturally, they want to be somewhere where visits from family and friends are most convenient. That's not always the best thing. In the first place, that institution might not offer the programs that are most beneficial. And, I explain, the truth of the matter is that after a while, the visits aren't going to be as regular as they think. People on the outside get on with their lives."

While he has high expectations, his venture has not returned him to the financial stratosphere. Divorced, he lives in an extended-stay hotel because as an ex-con he can't find a leasing agent who will rent him an apartment. His business is basically a cell phone and a post office box.

And, he's aware, there are those who view him skeptically. There are lawyers out there who simply can't bring themselves to pay an ex-con to help their clients, he says. "I just have to accept that." And, of course, there are those whose money he squandered. They aren't likely to ever be convinced Cohen has gone straight.

If his business ever makes it big, he says, he'd like to repay those he bilked. "I live every day with the fact I'm a convicted felon, that I've done bad things and hurt a lot of people," he says. "No matter what I'm able to accomplish from here on out, that's never going to change."

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