On October 10, Fordham Law School hosted a former international finance attorney who discussed his motivations for and the ramifications of stealing millions of dollars from a Russian oligarch. What made Leigh Sprague turn to white-collar crime?
Born in California and raised in small-town Wisconsin, Sprague’s only early episode of malfeasance was stealing a toy at age 7. Later, after visiting Yugoslavia in an exchange program, he yearned to explore more of the world. He visited Russia and later joined the Peace Corps.
“I saw a lot of potential for maybe having a positive impact,” he said.
After graduating from Columbia Law School, Sprague found success on Wall Street and in Russia. Eventually he found himself working for Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who was then Russia’s richest businessman and a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Sprague worked in the legal department of Deripaska’s aluminum company, where he commanded an annual salary of $1 million. He rented, and later bought, a house in Malibu for his family.
Sprague, however, was unhappy. His work environment was hostile; it championed virility above all other values and encouraged him to adapt to less-than-ethical practices. He became greedy and emotionally distant. He felt entitled. His marriage began to crumble and he developed an addiction to over-the-counter cough medication. Caught in a quagmire, he dreamt of escape, wanting to leave Russia but lacking the will to do so.
Then the global financial crisis hit. During this tumultuous time, the company overleveraged and Sprague became part of a small group, including Deripaska, that tried to save the business by any possible means. In one secret transaction, Sprague, Deripaska, and one other member oversaw a massive stash of money. Knowing that the funds were being closely monitored by only himself, Sprague glimpsed a golden opportunity to leave Russia forever.
“The particular set of circumstances I found myself in were enough to tip the balance for me to do what I did,” he said during the discussion, led by former prosecutor Hank Shea, senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
Performing “mental gymnastics,” in part due to his dependency on narcotics, Sprague rationalized his plan and suppressed consideration of risks, including the safety of his family. In a plot that he described as uncomplicated but requiring much thought, he secretly transferred money among international banks. Successful in his endeavor, Sprague found himself with an extra $10 million.
With the stolen money, he made extravagant purchases, including rare luxury cars and renovations to his Malibu estate. Then he decided he wanted more—$5 million more. He did not foresee that, this time, he would not get away with it.
Having fled Russia and endangered his family, Sprague was eventually able to strike a deal with Russian officials and return the unspent portion of the money. He was convicted in the United States and sentenced to 50 months in prison. Part of that sentence was spent in rehab therapy, where he overcame his codeine addiction.
Sprague now spends his time discussing his experiences through events like the very one organized by the Fordham Corporate Law Center, Compliance Programs, and Stein Center for Law and Ethics, part of the ongoing Behind the Crime series. He challenged Fordham Law students to contemplate how they can integrate their values into their career aspirations. He hopes his words can help prevent other lawyers from subordinating their principles for profit.
Neither justifying his behavior nor claiming that everyone would commit what he did if placed in the same circumstances, he warned that people often overestimate their resilience in the face of grave temptation.
“I think a lot of people, given the right set of circumstances, may not be quite as upstanding or moral as they think,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had it in me to go over the edge like I did.”
Story and photos by Lindsey Pelucacci.