When Yahoo chief executive Scott Thomson was found to have fudged his resume, including a degree in computer science that was in fact, a bachelor of accounting, he was subject to a higher level of scrutiny than usual. The internet giant was subject to a proxy fight in which the man who outed Thomson – Daniel Loeb, head of hedge fund Third Point, which holds a Yahoo stake worth around $US1 billion – had been pushing for months to replace several board members with his own nominees.
But Thomson isn’t the only high flyer to be knocked out by close resume inspection late in the day. Indeed, when Laura Callahan, deputy CIO of the US Department of Homeland Security, was found to have fabricated three degrees, it triggered an investigation which found 500 more federal government employees had done the same. Statistics from third-party resume verification services estimate between 25 per cent and 90 per cent of all resumes contain some kind of error, deliberate or accidental, although many industry statistics conflate minor, inadvertent omissions with serious fabrications.
In the end, Thomson didn’t do too badly. He was able to keep at least $US7.3 million for his three-month spot in the job, according to Bloomberg, and will likely go on to find a role at a smaller company in the booming sector, where the considerable skills he possesses are high in demand. Neither did Yahoo suffer terribly – its shares rose over 1.5 per cent in pre-market trade on the announcement of Thomson’s departure. But in the world of high-flyer resume fraud, Thomson’s fudge was relatively minor... for others, it hasn’t always ended so well.
The resume doctor
By far the most commonly reported executive CV fudge is the non-existent degree. And in some cases, it’s the education of high-level employees, whose appointments tend to focus on other criteria, that receive the least scrutiny. Telstra found this the hard way when, in 1993, IT head and director of research, British National Bruno Sorrentino, left after just five weeks in the role.
"When Bruno Sorrentino migrated from Britain to Australia six years ago, he left behind a 25-year career as a middle-manager in Midland Bank's computer division,” The Australian Financial Review reported at the time. "En route to Australia, he adopted the title of "Dr" and took on a new persona which was to open up a new phase of his career.
"Within six months he had been appointed to the ANZ Bank as its general manager, information technology, and chief information officer, commanding a salary package of up to $250,000. Later he established a Melbourne based consultancy whose client list included the retail giant Coles Myer.”
Perhaps it was a case of taking success one step too far... if Sorrentino had left it there, he might have avoided discovery by a small group of research scientists who, the paper said, were curious to read their boss’s PhD thesis and, having gone looking for it, found it didn’t exist.
Still, Sorrentino’s fib was relatively straightforward. Sometimes more colourful resume lies reveal a particularly egotistical bent, as in the case of Lotus Development Corporation chief executive Geoffrey Papows, who quit in 1999 after seven years with the company. As The Register put it: "So he's not an orphan, his parents are alive and well. He wasn't a Marine Corps captain, he was a lieutenant. He didn't save a buddy by throwing a live grenade out of a trench. He didn't burst an eardrum when ejecting from a Phantom F4, which didn't crash, not killing his co-pilot. He's not a tae kwon do black belt, and he doesn't have a PhD from Pepperdine University.”
For acting skills to match wholesale resume fabrication, Peter Gwinnell is a daring example. In 2010 Gwinnell, 49, posted an impressive resume online – including stints at Harvard and Oxford, as well as 20 years’ experience at JP Morgan – where it was picked up by headhunters who put him forward for a £165,000 role as deputy chief executive of London investment bank Ahli United. After acing interviews with the recruitment firm and the bank Gwinnell settled into the role, which involved frequent flights to the Middle East to hob nob with wealthy clients.
But in this case Google helped the impersonator, not the screeners... it wasn’t until a month in the position that Ahli’s extra checks uncovered that not only was the entire resume made up, Gwinnell was also a convicted con man who’d served six months in prison. After the Ahli con was revealed, Gwinnell was spared a second imprisonment, but went on to send his fraudulent CV to a Swiss bank.
The past life
Bruno Sorrentino wasn’t the last high-profile resume fraud to hit Telstra. In 2000, Texan import Chris Tyler – the chief executive of Solution 6, an IT company 24 per cent owned by Telstra – was exposed by BRW Magazine to have a conviction in America for trafficking over 20 kg of cannabis. The 10-year suspended sentence was given at a time when Tyler was working as a nightclub owner and operator.
But far more worrying for investors, the CEO also held a bankruptcy conviction related to listed Canadian company Lesson Ware, which he headed and which collapsed spectacularly after just six months of operation. The expose was particularly bad timing for Telstra, given Solution 6 was in the middle of an attempted takeover by local IT start-up Sausage software, worth around $2 billion.
Widely reported at the time was the fact that when asked why he hadn’t disclosed this history to Telstra, Tyler said the company "hadn’t asked” at any time during his three-year tenure. Tyler retained around $14 million in options and a six-month consultative role after his departure, but the fiasco claimed the head of the Telstra board member who championed his appointment.
London law office manager Zakia Sharif not only made up two law degrees in her application for an office manager job at the local arm of US law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, she went on, with firm partner Graham Simkin, to defraud the company of over £100,000 in expenses, ranging from stationery to luxury goods to a photograph of Muhammad Ali.
Meanwhile Simkin also billed clients for over £100,000 worth of hospitality expenses they never actually experienced – an impressive speed of spending, considering it all took place between 2004 to 2008. But it came crashing down soon after when the pair were jailed for 16 months. The aftermath revealed one more hidden detail – that the two were, in fact, married.
The Robin Hood
Not all resume frauds end up reviled. Arriving from Germany in 1975, bankrupt John Friedrich snuck through customs as an illegal immigrant and settled into his new life – so well, in fact, that his fake qualifications scored him a job in 1982 as head of the Victorian branch of non-profit search and rescue organisation, the National Safety Council. Under Friedrich’s watch the Gippsland based council went on an enormous growth spree, spurred on by the Ash Wednesday disaster, which saw it purchase aircraft, boats and even a submarine.
Borrowing increasing amounts of cash and using empty shipping containers as collateral, Friedrich must’ve had some intimation that his masterpiece couldn’t last. But when it did collapse in 1989 with debts over $200 million, he fled, dying soon after from a suspected suicide. Tributes remembered him as a kind and friendly man who spent little money on himself, and as a visionary, but the branch never recovered its glory.
Perhaps it’s Europe’s obsession with titles or perhaps it’s a numbers game, but Germany must be feeling some strain from recent high-profile plagiarism incidents that have seen a string of the country’s politicians fall out of favour.
In 2011, German defence minister, celebrity politician and hopeful successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, stood down in 2011 after the revelation the doctoral dissertation on his resume contained large portions of plagiarised material. Public support from Angela Merkel hit the chancellor, who saw a community backlash over her initial support of "zu Googleberg”, as the press called him.
There was déjà vu one month later, when European Parliament vice president and Silvana Koch-Mehrin quit her post after similar allegations, although she denies the allegations and continues as a member of the parliament. Later that year another German member of the European Parliament, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, was stripped of his doctorate for plagiarism. But a run of high-profile cases continues on the continent, after Hungarian president Pal Schmitt resigned in April following allegations of doctoral thesis plagiarism, which he denies. This month, Romania’s education minister quit over claims of plagiarism in eight academic papers.
Yet, as US vice president Joe Biden has shown, it is possible to make a comeback from fabrications. In 1988 Biden dropped out of the US presidential race after the discovery of a copied law paper from his first year at university. Now, of course, Biden is second in command in the world’s most powerful country.