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Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Lashon Hara is one of the occupational hazards of this job.

It is not only religiously observant reporters who have to worry about being guilty of gossip but anyone with a conscience. Responsible journalism is about balancing the public’s need to know with the privacy of individuals, their right to make mistakes and above all, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

But what do you do with someone who says the most damaging things — about himself?

While researching a story about the Crazy Eddie scandal I came across Sam Antar, who was the brains behind one of the biggest frauds in Wall Street and retail history. Sam could easily argue that he was an innocent kid who, at all of 14, got sucked into a life of crime by a family that exploited his naivete and talents, sending him to college and setting him up at an accounting firm to learn about the audit process so he could find ways to cheat.

Instead, Sam, as you will see in this weeks cover story, rakes himself over the coals worse than anyone else has, or could. In my interviews with him, he would often express his extreme remorse for what he did and, in the same breath, question his own sincerity because, as he points out, he only stopped cheating and stealing because he was caught.

At times I felt uncomfortable being Sam’s accomplice in publicly flagellating himself. But in the end, I felt it was an informative, and in many ways uplifting story about one man’s quest for redemption. Sam says he has spent up to half a million dollars of his own money, made from real estate investments, flying around the country lecturing about white-collar crime to law enforcement officers and non-profit groups.

It occurred to me at one point that Sam’s public remorse may be a tool to promote his lecturing, for which he is now charging private for-profit groups. Even if that’s true, he deserves to make a living, and what he has to say has value not only to watchdogs and CEOs, but to would-be thieves.

There has been an observable shift in our national culture these days from the mealy-mouthed “it’s someone else’s fault” reaction to getting caught to standing up tall and taking your lumps. Sam Antar is a fine example of that shift, and his public acts of teshuvah are an inspiration at the appropriate time of the year.

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