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ISSUE 121 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/12/2007

Felon relates life experiences

By Emily Koester
News Editor

Friday, October 12, 2007

Former lawyer and '85 St. Olaf alum Stephen Rondestvedt, who during his practice swindled almost $1 million out of his clients, said major criminal activity can start with small violations. "If you do something once, it becomes easier the second, third and fourth times," he said.

Rondestvedt spoke Thursday to an audience of students and visitors in Viking Theater; St. Olaf is one of several colleges Rondestvedt has visited as part of his program to caution college students against the temptations of malpractice.

"If I can continue to be the voice of what can happen, then I'll think I've done some good," he said. Rondestvedt appeared with former U.S. attorney Hank Shea, the prosecuting attorney in the Rondestvedt case. Shea introduced Rondestvedt and fielded audience questions.

Rondestvedt said that over a period of three years, he took money from 28 different clients, many of them family or friends of family, while handling their personal injury and worker compensation cases. "They relied on me to get their lives back on track. It made it easier for me to do what I did because I had their trust," he said.

As a consequence for his crimes, he served 29 months in prison followed by time in both a half-way house and house confinement.

Rondestvedt said he began his illegal actions during a time when personal funds were tight. "We had a third child on the way and were buying a house," he said, adding that an unpaid debt owed to his family only worsened matters. He resorted to stealing money from a client to obtain desired funds. "I ended up bilking [the client] out of $25,000," he said. "This fateful decision led to three years of escalating poor decisions. It became a habit and a way of life."

Though his malpractice went undetected for those years, Rondestvedt nonetheless decided to turn himself in. "Every time the phone rang or I opened the mail, it was a potential disaster. By the time I was in the attorney's office, I was nearly at wit's end." After pleading guilty in the presence of his former clients, Rondestvedt spent two weeks in his office with an FBI agent organizing his personal documents and identifying all of his victims.

When asked by an audience member about his experience in prison, Rondestvedt said it was "mind-numbing and dull. It was a daily constant reminder that I had messed up badly enough to lose my personal liberties." Rondestvedt lost his license to practice law and now works for a health care agency.

He still submits monthly reports of his activities and checks in with a probation officer. He also continues to pay the Board of Client Security, who paid the damages done to Rondestvedt's clients. Rondestvedt does not expect to ever be able to pay the board back fully.

Rondestvedt and Shea pointed out that a good upbringing and educational career do not rule out the possibilities of wrong turns in the future. Rondestvedt graduated at the top of his high school class and majored in English literature and American studies at St. Olaf College. After completing law school at Hamline University, he successfully became a sole practitioner of law in 1999.

Referring to his crimes, Rondestvedt said, "This is not something my background could have prepared me for." He also emphasized that illegal practice and immoral behavior often start with something seemingly harmless, such as plagiarism on a school exam, and increase from there.

"Once the door is open, it becomes difficult to shut," Rondestvedt said.

On his speaking tours, Rondestvedt advises students to reach out for help as a way to avoid ethical downfalls.

"The minute I stopped asking for help is the minute that the poor decisions began," he said.

Shea said that Rondestvedt's presentations to liberal arts colleges have received positive responses from students. After Rondestvedt visited the University of St. Thomas, Shea quoted one St. Thomas student as saying, "I might forget most of what I learned here, but I'll never forget what Rondestvedt said."

Rondestvedt's talk at St. Olaf was followed by a panel of judges and attorneys to discussing the place of morality in the legal field. Judges John Tunheim, Joan Ericksen and Ron James, the President and CEO of the Center for Ethical Business Cultures (moderated by Carleton professor Mike Hemesath) shared opinions about the dilemmas of achieving goals and competing with peers while still making ethical choices.

Judge Ericksen echoed Rondesveldt's sentiments that ethical crimes start small, even as small as cynical attitudes that hinder effort and activity. "Just because you don't lie, cheat and purloin doesn't mean you're acting ethically," she said.

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