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January 24, 2007

'A Financial Plan That Comes With Mug Shots'


That was the headline over John Schwartz's January 7, 2007 New York Times Business section story about Timothy J. Bowers, who came up with a retirement plan for himself that costs us — but not him.

And the best part is, he didn't even have to backdate anything.

Here's the article.

    A Financial Plan That Comes With Mug Shots

    Once in a great while, an honest-to-goodness visionary shows up — someone who sees things in an utterly different way and helps to change our perspective as well.

    Timothy J. Bowers is just such a man. His insights into the world of investing and retirement could reshape the way we look at the future. But you won't find this giant in the case studies at Harvard Business School or sculpted in bronze on Wall Street.

    That oversight could have something to do with the fact that Mr. Bowers is serving a three-year sentence for bank robbery in the Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio.

    Plenty of people end up in prison when their plans for ill-gotten gain go awry. But getting rich from a robbery was not the goal of Mr. Bowers. Getting into prison was.

    On May 1, Mr. Bowers — or, as he is known to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, prisoner A535976 — handed a teller a stickup note, got four $20 bills and then handed them over to a security guard, telling the guard that it was his day to be a hero, according to accounts by The Columbus Dispatch and The Associated Press.

    At his trial in October, he explained to the judge that he was about to turn 63 and had lost his job making deliveries for a drug wholesaler. He said that with only minimum-wage jobs available, he preferred to draw a three-year sentence, which would get him to age 66, when, he said, he could live off of Social Security. And that is what he got.

    Mr. Bowers has solved his income problem and the question of health care in a single act. He's a little like O. Henry's character, Soapy the New York hobo, in ''The Cop and the Anthem,'' who hopes to winter over at Rikers Island: ''Three months of assured board and bed and congenial company, safe from Boreas and bluecoats, seemed to Soapy the essence of things desirable.'' The patented O. Henry twist, of course, was that Soapy had a great deal of trouble getting arrested. Mr. Bowers did not.

    His lawyer, Jeremy W. Dodgion, said his client is neither unbalanced nor dim. ''He's as charming as can be,'' he said. ''He's easy-going, very articulate — he's no dummy, by any means.''

    He said Mr. Bowers was addressing an all-too-common problem.

    ''At his age, it was harder and harder to find a job with benefits,'' Mr. Dodgion said, and ''he finally said, to hell with it.'' And while most people would find prison a soul-crushing experience, Mr. Bowers had done time in the 1970s on a robbery conviction, Mr. Dodgion said, and so he knew he could survive.

    The prosecutor, Dan Cable, summed up for The A.P.: ''It's not the financial plan I would choose,'' he said, ''but it's a financial plan.''

    Now if you are a regular reader of this column (Hi, Mom!), you know that I'm all about unconventional plans for investors and outside-the-box thinking. But here's a little inside-the-can thinking, and it's got oomph. In fact, I'd call it incarcer-iffic.

    That beloved financial adviser, David St. Hubbins, mused in the documentary ''This Is Spinal Tap'' that ''It's such a fine line between clever and stupid.'' I'm sure you know where I stand by now on Mr. Bowers.

    Mr. Dodgion, the defense lawyer, told me that he has heard from prospective clients who seem to think that Mr. Bowers had a pretty good idea, and ''who wanted me to do the same thing for them.

    ''I said: 'Are you kidding?' Is this going to be a trend?''

    Maybe so, I boldly predict. Many investors found in 2000 that we're just one market ''correction'' away from losing our nest eggs, and corporate scandals emptied out a lot of stock ownership plans. Employers, meanwhile, seem determined to whittle away at employee pensions and health plans. The pen could be the only safety net left.

    Seen in this light, a stay in prison could even make sense to people who still have assets sunk in 401(k)s. Think of it as the ultimate ''buy and hold'' strategy. Your mutual funds grow, and you don't have to worry about the substantial penalties for early withdrawal. The funds are released when you are.

    While the rest of us fret about the future, Mr. Bowers will be in Hocking, a minimum-security prison that serves as a kind of haven for older criminals; its Web site states, ''We provide quality programming for an aging offender population.'' Delete the word ''offender'' and it sounds like a retirement village. The activities include aerobics, basket weaving and training companion animals. It's less like Oz, more like Kansas. It's just the kind of prison, in fact, that Tom Noe, Mr. Bowers's fellow Ohioan, could be staying at before long if his appeals don't work out.

    Mr. Noe, you may recall, is the formerly well-connected coin dealer now serving federal time for illegal fund-raising for the Republican Party. He's been sentenced to 18 years in prison on state charges that he stole millions of dollars from an unusual $50 million investment fund (based on rare coins) that he ran for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, and he must repay Ohio $13.7 million.

    Imagine the conversations they could have after aerobics class.

    And you know what that means, right? Once again, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow of Enron are the smartest guys in the room. By going to prison, they are, again, simply out ahead of the pack.


Over the years, I've discovered a number of useful tricks that are entirely legal but which would disappear instantly once they become widely known.

Some of them I share with close friends, but others will go to the grave with me.

January 24, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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I remember reading about this when it first happened and was astonished, amazed, and delighted that this guy did it!

I was hoping that his story would be publicized enough to get the attention it deserves.

Being self-employed and incapable of getting affordable medical insurance, I now have a new option. I had to throw out the bankruptcy option thanks to our government and its lending industry lobbyists.

If I were only a little older....

Posted by: Ray | Jan 24, 2007 12:32:46 PM

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