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Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio: Tales From a White-Collar Prison Sentence

In Post-Prison Interview, Nacchio Talks of Friends 'Spoonie' and 'Juice,' and Using Tuna Fish as Currency


The Wall Street Journal
By Dionne Searcey
September 27, 2013, 4:30 p.m. ET

LIVINGSTON, N.J.—Former telecommunications company chief executive Joseph Nacchio entered prison in 2009 out of shape, depressed and anxious.

Fifty-four months later, Mr. Nacchio, 64 years old, who once ran Qwest Communications International Inc., has emerged physically unrecognizable from his pre-incarceration life.

Prison appears to have shaved years off his looks. He has broad shoulders from a daily regimen of lifting weights and 5-mile walks and runs. He has a goatee and his head, formerly covered with black hair, is completely shaved and tan. He says his blood pressure and cholesterol are lower than when he entered prison and his body fat has dropped dramatically. He thinks he looks like actor Edward Norton on his federal Bureau of Prisons identification card. Prison also offered the CEO, who once was surrounded by highflying telecom executives before his prosecution for

Michael Rubenstein for The Wall Street Journal

Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, photographed Sept. 24, described his experience in prison as 'Lord of the Flies, for grown-ups.'

insider trading in 2007, a new set of peers: drug offenders Spoonie and Juice, and a bunkmate named Spider. "I trust Spoonie and Juice with my back. I wouldn't trust the guys who worked for me at Qwest," said Mr. Nacchio,

Mr. Nacchio is among the first white-collar executives to be set free after a decade of aggressive crackdowns by federal investigators to rein in shenanigans at public companies. He remains as combative as ever, insisting he never committed a crime, while describing his experience in prison as something akin to "Lord of the Flies, for grown-ups."

A jury convicted Mr. Nacchio of selling $52 million of stock as Qwest's outlook was deteriorating when the telecom boom of the early 2000s was imploding. He paid a $19 million fine and after an appeal forfeited $44.6 million, though he says he is still well-off financially, and still owns several residences.

Mr. Nacchio spent most of his sentence in two Pennsylvania facilities called camps, the lowest level of security offered by the Bureau of Prisons.

image

Associated Press

Joseph Nacchio waves as he leaves the federal courthouse in Denver April 11, 2007. The former telecommunications executive was convicted on insider-trading charges.

 

There are no bars and no walls around the perimeter. Camp inmates can send emails.

But they are awakened in the night for security checks. Phone calls are limited to about 10 minutes a day. Visitors are allowed but only every other weekend and some holidays.

Prison experts and former inmates say conditions are less comfortable for white-collar criminals than they were in the 1980s, when media stories about leafy prison camps with sparkling athletic facilities surfaced during the savings-and-loan crisis. They say authorities took down tennis nets in at least one camp and cut off inmate access to golf courses and swimming pools.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said federal camps do not have pools and said the agency doesn't keep records of past amenities.

"There is no such thing as a Club Fed," said prison consultant Alan Ellis, who advises white-collar convicts about life in prison.

Mr. Nacchio's fellow inmates included former Galleon Group trader Zvi Goffer and his brother Emanuel Goffer, both serving time for an insider-trading scheme. Mr. Nacchio got to know both of them.

But the two prison camps where Mr. Nacchio served, named Schuylkill and Lewisburg, were in large part populated with drug offenders, Mr. Nacchio said—men with muscular builds, covered in tattoos, and often two decades younger than him. Two of them became his guardian angels.

"Joe was right down to earth," said Spoonie, who asked that his real name not be used because of the stigma his drug-conspiracy conviction carries.

Spoonie, 45, said other white-collar offenders were "just all full of themselves," and stereotyped inmates such as himself and Juice, another drug offender, because of their tattoos and crimes.

"We are like best friends now," he said, adding that Mr. Nacchio's prison nickname was "Joe-ski-luv," because he's been married to the same woman for more than 30 years. "If he ever needs a lung or a bone, I'm there."

Some former Qwest employees and shareholders remain unmoved. Mr. Nacchio made lots of enemies at Qwest when it took over regional telecom company U.S. West, a tension-fueled process that made him reviled among workers, some of whose retirement accounts were drained during his tenure and when Qwest's stock took a dive.