After the Fact

Six years after his long-time accountant was sent to prison for fraud, one client looks for answers

Back Longreads Jul 26, 2016 By Stuart Greenbaum

Bill Murray (not that one) was at the top of his game, so to speak, until an epic fall from grace. In December 2009, the 54-year-old tax accountant was charged with defrauding more than 50 clients of his Sacramento firm, Murray & Young Accountancy, out of more than $13.3 million. He subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 19.5 years in federal prison. The saga played out like a reality TV crime drama, from beginning to end.

Media coverage at the time of his arrest and conviction recounted in great detail the scandalous misdeeds of this disgraced, but once prominent, certified public accountant with a solid client base in the hundreds. His fraudulent activity became a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, as he was forced to steal more and more to cover his tracks and stay ahead of IRS demands. This to support an extravagant lifestyle that included 350 bottles of fine wine and a fleet of limousines at the expense and emotional suffering of his victims. By most accounts, Murray got what he deserved: one of the harshest sentences for white-collar crime on record in a federal court in Sacramento.

I not only knew Murray: He was my accountant for 19 years. Each year after he completed my tax preparation, he and I would spend some time catching up on business, personal lives, cars and baseball cards. He was accumulating a substantial card collection and always had mint-condition classics to share. My extensive childhood collection was stolen, so seeing his trophy of cards was fulfilling, if a bit melancholy.

On Dec. 15, 2009 I received a correspondence from Murray & Young — a form letter. It began: “Dear Stuart, Due to personal circumstances, I will no longer be operating my accounting practice…”

The following day, I received another dreaded letter from the IRS. I was being audited yet again, for the fourth time. And a day after that, on Dec. 17, I opened The Sacramento Bee and began reading an article with the headline, “Accountant’s Confession Told.”

The complaint charges William R. Murray …” jolted me like a car crash.

As far as I could tell, I was one of the lucky ones who escaped Murray’s greed, if not his scrutiny by the IRS. The multiple audits suggest to me that either he was already on the IRS’s watch list, or that his advice regarding deductions was way too aggressive. Fortunately, as I always supposed to be the case, by the time his transgressions likely began around the turn of the decade, I was no longer a big fish worth deceiving or thieving.

Related: How to Vet a Financial Advisor

It’s been more than six years since Murray’s self-inflicted implosion and exile from society. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether the reflection that still consumes and sickens his victims affects Murray. What was he thinking? What is he thinking? Last November, I attempted to find out.

So I began a series of questions, starting with a letter asking to be added to his approved list of contacts. My straightforward agenda was to encourage his honest reflection and introspection with the intent of writing about it.

Here is a selection of William Murray’s answers, in his own words.

(Note: Correspondence has been edited for grammar, brevity and clarity.)

From: WILLIAM MURRAY (18958097)

Sent: November 20, 2015

To: Stuart Greenbaum

Stuart,

Thank you for accepting my e-mail invitation. In answer to your questions, yes, I am your former accountant; however, as far as committing to answering any questions, I must defer saying yes until I know what the questions are…

-Bill

From: Stuart Greenbaum

Sent: November 23, 2015

To: WILLIAM MURRAY (18958097)

Hey Bill – Thanks for agreeing to communicate with me … My interest in developing a short story is to share some perspective into what you were thinking, more than doing.
1. Why the baseball cards and other sports memorabilia (i.e. collection or investment)?
2. In the past 10 years, what was your best (or a really good) day; and what was your worst?
3. Was there a specific moment or reason that you veered off the path of legitimacy?
4. Did you spend more time enjoying or worrying? … What were the highlights? How consuming was your fear of getting caught?
5. Nowadays, do you mostly think about the future, the past, or is it simply day-to-day?
Any other thoughts you feel comfortable sharing would be appreciated.I cannot deny being curious why you didn’t (or did?)involve me in your scheme? …
– Stuart

From: WILLIAM MURRAY (18958097)

Sent: December 6, 2015, via post

To: Stuart Greenbaum

Stuart,

As I alluded to in a prior email, I struggled while contemplating my responses.

I started several times but would find myself using the smallest interruption as an excuse to stop and do something (anything?) else. Again, my apologies.

1. Baseball cards: Like many of the other boys in my neighborhood, I started collecting baseball cards while still in grade school. In fact, sadly, my first memory of stealing was for baseball cards … Although it would be years before I would steal again, I can’t help but wonder how my actions as a youth affected by subsequent actions as an adult.

2. Best/worst days in the last 10 years: Obviously the 10-year period you mention in your question covers the last of my free years. While there were many “good” times during that period, they were all funded at least in part by other people’s money. This was a fact I chose to ignore for the longest time. I constantly told myself that I would be able to repay everyone. Of course, such a false belief only allowed me to dig an ever deeper hole for myself.

3. Veering off: I do not recall the specific moment that I “veered off the path,” but I do recall that I had found myself in a financial hole deep enough that I thought I might lose my house. While the spending that led to that situation was not mine, I nevertheless allowed it to continue, the blame rests squarely with me.

4. Worrying: The worries of being caught were always in the back of my mind, and would usually come to the forefront only at the worst possible times…

As to your last (unnumbered) question, I think the reason that I did not attempt to involve you in my scheme was due to either lack of opportunity or if there was an opportunity, a lack of need on my part. Sadly, many of my victims became victims simply because I had a need for funds for some specific reason. (Many times it was just to rob Peter to pay Paul.)

So there you have my sad and likely upsetting, but nevertheless true, answers. Although I struggled with my responses, I think overall it has been good for me to again confront my past actions. If any of my victims wind up reading your blog post, I sincerely apologize for all the pain and suffering I have caused them.

-Bill

From: Stuart Greenbaum

Sent: December 18, 2015

To: WILLIAM MURRAY (18958097)

Hey Bill –
A few thoughts/questions came up, if you could answer:
1. your age?
2. one or more favorite baseball cards in your collection?
3. thoughts at the time on writing the “Due to personal circumstances, I will no longer …” letter?
4. about almost losing your house, you note that “While the spending that led to the situation was not mine …” Could you expand on this?
5. Could the fact that I (maybe other clients as well?) was audited four times have been influenced by early IRS scrutiny of you?
6. Any notable contact since your incarceration with your family members or friends or clients?
… Thanks again for your candor and responsiveness.
– Stuart

From: WILLIAM MURRAY (18958097)

Sent: December 23, 2015

To: Stuart Greenbaum

Stuart,

Sorry for the delay in responding — things are crazy here. Everyone on my team was fired (save me) for another copy machine issue, there has been another extended lock-down, etc, etc. Seems like Rosanna was right: “It is always something.

I am now 61. Regarding the house, let me clarify – I was responsible. I cannot blame anyone else. Other than that, I will have to put some thought into your other questions.

-Bill

From: WILLIAM MURRAY (18958097)

Sent: January 13, 2016

To: Stuart Greenbaum

Stuart,

It seems like the craziness is only getting worse. In the interim, we have had another long lock-down, this time punctuated with a hunger strike, [Murray was not a part of the hunger strike] three suicide watches (I am an inmate companion), and associated other problems that have kept my mind on other things. I again apologize, and in my group session on Thursday, I will once again bring up my delays in responding to you.

Anyway, with Good Time, my release date is April 1, 2027.

Regarding the baseball cards, try as I might, I cannot recall a particular favorite. I think my failure here may be linked to my (rather late in life) realization about how really unimportant material possessions are. In fact, I cannot recall the last time I even thought about my cards, artwork, cars or other solely material possessions. I do, however, think a lot about the friendships I have lost and the many really good people I have hurt.

Looking back, I still don’t believe your audits in the 90s were related. I base this opinion on the fact that only a very small percentage of my clients were audited. If the IRS had been suspicious, I think a larger percentage would have been audited, and the Service would have also audited me.

Early on, I received two letters from my victims. Pursuant to BOP regulations which prohibit contact with victims, I gave the letters directly to my correctional counselor without reading them. Since then, you are the first client that has contacted me and, as you were not a victim of my theft, I was not restricted from responding to you.

I think that concludes my responses, and I thank you for taking the time to follow up with me. I also again apologize to you and to everyone else whom I hurt.

-Bill

In the end, I suppose the exchange satisfied my curiosity. It was interesting to learn first-hand of the motivation of a notorious criminal — even the observation about his baseball cards shed unexpected light on his character. Conversely, for Murray’s victims, I doubt neither his explanations nor his apologies do more than aggravate old wounds.

Comments

Tracy H (not verified)September 13, 2016 - 8:46am

As a more recent transplant to this area, I'd never heard of this case...but it was a fascinating look inside the motivation - and regret - of someone paying dearly for his transgression. Mr. Greenbaum had an inside seat and asked the tough questions in a reporterly, not unkind, way. Like many things in life, these crimes didn't sound deeply pre-planned, but more a self-deception in a time of need. I'm sorry it worked out that way, for all concerned.

Lucy Fisher (not verified)September 14, 2016 - 5:46am

Rare and candid interview with a man who acknowledged his misdeeds. Missing is his effect on family and friends. How painful that must be.

stuart greenbaum (not verified)October 10, 2016 - 10:09am

disappointed -- sent Murray the published article months ago; no word back yet, no accounting ...

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