At 28, Helen Sharkey landed her dream job as an accountant at a prominent company in Houston. She never imagined that the dream would become a nightmare, ultimately resulting in a felony plea and a sentence in a maximum security prison.
The company was Dynegy Corporation, an energy trading firm and Enron rival. Sharkey was assigned to work on Project Alpha, a now-infamous deal in which Dynegy recorded $300 million in loans as income. Sharkey was the youngest and most junior member of the team. She says she knew that what she was being asked to do was unethical, but convinced herself that speaking up wouldn’t change anything. By taking the path of least resistance, she says, she became no different than the decision makers.
In 2001, on the heels of the Enron scandal, Sharkey and two other team members became the center of a federal investigation. Sharkey was the low man on the totem pole, yet that was no defense. In 2003 she pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. She was sentenced to 30 days in a maximum security prison, 6 months home detention, a $10,000 fine, and forfeited her CPA license.
For nearly a decade, Sharkey attempted to deny the pain and shame of what had happened. Yet there were constant reminders. Like the time she went to the police station to report that she’d become a victim of identity fraud. The police officer was eager to help until he learned she had a felony conviction. There was nothing he could do to help her, he said. The most painful moment came when her sons enrolled in first grade. Because of her felony conviction, she was told that she wouldn’t be allowed to volunteer at their school or sit near students on field trips.
Around the same time, an old friend contacted her with a proposition: Would she be willing to speak to a CPA association about her experience? Though she was terrified, she said yes. It went well, so well that she started being asked to speak by other professional groups and universities. Opening up about her experience has been cathartic and she hopes she’s helping others to learn from her mistakes.
Sharkey empathizes with others who are trying to turn their lives around after getting out of prison. “It is so hard to pick yourself up,” she says. She’s been fortunate to have a supportive family and community of friends. People released from prison “try to go out and do things the right way and they can’t get a job,” she says.
For all the struggles she’s endured, she doesn’t have to look hard to find the good that has come out of her experience. It’s made her more compassionate and more able to see everyone—including the women she was in prison with—as vulnerable human beings, just like her. To those who are tempted to judge others, she says “Good people make bad decisions. You need to give them a break.”
She’s deeply grateful to all the people who have helped her along this journey. She wants to pay it forward by helping others who are facing prison sentences or struggling to re-enter society. A member of an Orthodox parish, she’s volunteering with other Orthodox Christians in Houston who have formed a prison ministry with the support and training of OCPM.