Mark Moskowitz's Story: In Prison for Defrauding Investors, I Turned My Life Around
Locked in a cell with no cell phone, Mark Moskowitz faced his demons.
Yom Kippur morning, 2016. Mark Moskowitz was at home in New Jersey, preparing to go to synagogue, when he heard a loud knock at the door. Two FBI agents were at the door with the news that Mark was under investigation for defrauding investors of nearly a million dollars.
Within a year, Mark had pled guilty and was incarcerated in federal prison. In confinement, with lots of time to think, Mark examined his life. Two years later, he returned to civilian life repentant and transformed.
Today, at age 53, Mark is crafting a new life as a motivational speaker, life coach, and author of a book about his awakening in prison, entitled Within. He spoke with Aish.com about his journey.
Chasing the Money
Mark Moskowitz grew up in the New York suburb of Westfield, New Jersey, in a secular-with-some-tradition Jewish household. He attended an elite private high school, then Northeastern University. Always athletic, he had potential as a professional golfer and spent a year after college playing on a semi-pro tour in Florida.
His father had built a lifelong career on Wall Street and Mark chose to follow that path. “I grew up chasing the money. Life was about earnings and material possessions.”
We were always on the edge, trying not to cross the line.
In 1992, Mark dove into Wall Street, first at UBS where he sold to hedge funds and mutual funds. He quickly learned how the game is played. “There’s pressure to squeeze clients and make your quarterly target numbers – to increase company profits and get your bonus paid out. The ethical line gets blurred in terms of what trades you're doing, and who you're calling for those trades. We were always on the edge, trying not to cross the line. That's the culture.”
During the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis, the reigning philosophy was: If you don't get caught, it doesn't count.
“With ‘no document’ mortgage loans and credit default swaps, Wall Street was creating one big shell game. There was so much criminal activity that never got prosecuted. The big banks were using 30-to-one leverage. If the market goes against you a mere 3%, you're out of business. That’s criminal. And it’s precisely what happened.”
Upon attaining a new level of material wealth, Mark was invariably disappointed – convinced that "If I can get twice as much, then I'll be happy!" – ad infinitum.
Mark playing semi-pro golf in Florida, 1990.
Crash and Burn
In 2012, Mark founded his own hedge fund, Edge Trading, promising to make money for investors the old-fashioned way: “My clients get a good ROI, I take 20% of the profits, and everyone is happy. That worked well for a few years, but then I got into some bad business deals and things started to go very bad.”
To conceal the losses, Mark falsely told investors that Edge Trading was growing year after year, enticing them to entrust Mark with additional funds.
In 2015, he began using some of the funds for personal use.
“I would take a loan from the fund, then pay it back, which I was legally allowed to do. I've earned money my whole life, so my mentality is that no amount is ‘too big’ to pay back. But the amounts kept getting bigger, eventually beyond my ability to pay back. Life spiraled out of control. I was constantly looking for an easy way to solve my problems. I was delusional, lying to myself, thinking I'd hit some big payday or win the lottery that would bail me out.”
In 2016, independent auditors detected a $700,000 hole in the account. They gave Mark a time limit to pay the money back, and when he failed to do so, they alerted Mark’s investors – who then notified the FBI.
The knock on the door came that Yom Kippur morning. "Mr. Moskowitz, you’re the target of an investigation. Have your attorney call the prosecutor. Do you have any questions?"
“Do you realize that today is the most important holiday for a Jew?"
The FBI agent shot back: “We could have come here with four black SUVs, with sirens screaming, to arrest you. Consider yourself lucky that you’re not in handcuffs.”
In that moment, Mark’s three decades on Wall Street came crumbling down. “All the trappings of success – nice house, cars, country clubs, and friends of high stature – none of that mattered now.”
Shell-shocked, Mark went to synagogue. “I sat there, bitter, angry and confused, wanting to blame the world for my problems. My parents did a poor job of raising me. My ex-wife bled me dry financially and emotionally. On and on, I blamed others – even the FBI agent at my door.”
Mark knew he needed to accept responsibility for having done wrong and make amends.
Ironically, Mark felt a certain sense of relief. “I could stop trying to cover things up. It was exhausting to cover my tracks, pretending that life was good. I was falsifying statements to investors, and I lied to my wife a million times. Guarding my secret had become a full-time job.”
Mark knew he needed to accept responsibility for having done wrong. “When I met with my lawyer, the public defender, I said straight out, ‘I'm guilty.’ He told me, ‘That's the first time anyone sat here and started the conversation that way.’"
In March 2017, Mark stood before a judge and pled guilty. “I just wanted to get this in the rear-view mirror. I felt terrible about everything I did, and wanted to make amends.”
Mark held out hope of avoiding prison time. “I didn’t imagine that guys like me went to prison. I wasn't violent, and didn't necessarily need to be removed from society. I didn’t open the fund with the intent to steal money, and I always wanted to make good.”
Mark hoped the compassionate judge might sentence him to something like two years of home confinement plus 10,000 hours of community service.
Not so lucky. The Madoff scandal, seven years earlier, was still on people's minds. Though Mark’s fund was only 1% of the size, the judge sentenced Mark to 33 months in federal prison, plus an additional three years of supervised release. He was also ordered to pay $694,000 in restitution to his investors.
Mark’s prison ID card.
In September 2017, Mark surrendered himself at Otisville, a minimum security prison located in the Catskills. Otisville has only 120 inmates, primarily white collar criminals: lawyers, doctors, financiers, and politicians – half of whom are Jewish. (The commissary sells kippot, matzah balls, and gefilte fish, earning Otisville the nickname Club Fed, a “nirvana” for Jewish offenders.)
“The difference between a prison camp and a penitentiary is huge. You don't have to worry about the violent aspects. It's a privilege to be in a camp, the difference between living in a jail cell versus a dormitory. People use the term ‘country club,’ but it's not. Five days a week, I worked in a warehouse, earning 15 cents a day. We had shakedowns and lockdowns. The emotional toll of prison life is very difficult.”
Amidst this challenging environment, Mark was determined to turn his life around.
I knew that to fall as far as I did, something needs to be fixed.
“I went in with the goal of walking out of there a better person than when I walked in. I knew that to have ended up in that place, to fall as far as I did, something needs to be fixed. There was a trigger in my brain, an urgency to heal. I consider myself an intelligent, educated person, yet I couldn’t figure out how my life had derailed to the point of ending up in prison. So I made it my mission to explore where it all went wrong. I didn't know how I’d fix things, but I wanted to make the best of it and come out stronger.”
In prison, Mark sought self-improvement and mental health rehabilitation programs – yet was disappointed. “I quickly discovered that the criminal justice system is designed more to punish than rehabilitate.”
The only support Mark found was a therapist he could see for 20 minutes each week.
“I explained to the therapist the emotional toll of having caused my children so much suffering, who at the time were ages 16, 14 and 11. They were really angry with me, and much of my desire to transform was to have my children back in my life. I knew that without transformation, there would be no chance. The therapist responded by telling me to forget about ever reconciling with my children. This is the level of mental health services I found in prison.”
Determined not to waste his time playing poker and watching TV, Mark took matters into his own hands.
“I’d read a lot of self-help books that emphasize the power of gratitude. Unfortunately, I’d never practiced it as part of daily life. Prison changed that for me.”
Mark committed to taking a daily “gratitude walk” around the prison camp. He’d walk for an hour a day, saying whatever he could think of to be grateful for.
Gratitude is the key to self-esteem. And self-esteem is the prerequisite for accepting full responsibility.
“At first, it feels unnatural and insincere. How can you feel grateful to be in prison? How can you feel grateful when the people you love have abandoned you? How can you be grateful when you have to start life over?
Mark did the gratitude walks consistently every day, no matter the weather. “I started to feed my mind with anything I could think of to be grateful for: my heart pumping blood, the fresh air, the trees, having a place to sleep and a meal to eat. It’s all about appreciating what you have in life, and not worrying about what you don't have. I went from ‘practicing’ gratitude to actually being grateful for this opportunity, disconnected from society, to work on myself. This primed my mind for bigger changes to come.”
For Mark, gratitude led to a cascade of positive outcomes.
“Gratitude is the key to self-esteem. And self-esteem is the prerequisite for accepting full responsibility. I had to learn all those things before I could stop blaming others, and accept people for who they are. I got to the point where I not only forgave people in my past, but absolved them of any wrongdoing. That's a wonderful, healthy place to see the world from. And it’s how I try to live every day.”
In June 2018, his father passed away. The organization Aleph helped arrange a three-day furlough to attend his father's funeral.
“When I came back to prison, one of the Jewish inmates spoke to me about saying Kaddish as a merit for my father's soul. I didn't grow up observant, and the idea of going to services three times a day, for 11 months, was a pretty big commitment. I would never have done that for my father if I'd been in the outside world. But in prison, I was literally a captive audience.”
Mark put on Tefillin every day and became more religiously observant.
“I grew up knowing some of the prayers, but I didn't know the meaning behind them. The first few months I was struggling just to get through the prayer book, waiting to say Kaddish. Eventually, I learned the prayers and began to feel them. I used to think that religion was a hindrance to spirituality. Going through this experience, I realized it's the exact opposite. In that consistency and knowing the prayers, I was able to get closest to God. It's like going to the gym – when you first start, it's difficult, but the more you go, the more results you get. I found that same awakening in my spirit.”
“Until that point of my life, my belief in God was suspect at best. Before I’d gone to prison, I didn't listen to God or pay attention to the signals. Once I stopped chasing materialism – the external noise – I could discover what I truly want in life.
“Solitude and incarceration were huge gifts. I needed to be in a place with no cell phone, to quiet the mind and pay attention to what God was saying. I’d be walking around the camp and know 100% in my heart that God put me in that moment.”
Mark suffered from chronically low self-esteem and in prison read dozens of personal development books by gurus like Tony Robbins and Jim Rohn. Mark had just finished reading The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden, and was discussing it with a fellow inmate whom he’d met at the prison synagogue.
“He told me, ‘I think you'd really like this book,’ and handed me a copy of Real Power by Dr. David Lieberman. The book speaks about a different way of thinking, where we literally change reality by changing what we focus on. Each circumstance is a blank canvas… until we paint the picture. This altered the fundamental way I saw myself and the world.”
Mark – the great “blamer” – adopted Maimonides’ advice for achieving balance: going to the opposite extreme and taking “extreme responsibility” for his actions.
“The ego wants to believe it's not your fault – it's your parents, your ex-wife, whomever. But once you go from low self-esteem to a healthy place, you can accept having made mistakes, plus accept good things you've done, too – and take full responsibility for it all.
I don't blame others, because if I do, that's giving my power away.
“I realized that life comes down to the choices I make, and I can choose anything I want. I own my power now. Nobody has control over me. I ultimately decide everything in my life. I don't blame others, because if I do, that's giving my power away. If someone says something hurtful to me, I have a choice of how to react. I can choose to be happy or sad, confident or miserable. Within myself, I have everything I need to live a great life.
“In the modern world, a lot of depression stems from looking outside of ourselves for happiness. Too often, we rely on external validation in order to feel good. We think that if we just get the next new car, or house or wife, then we’ll be happy. This belief is the main driver of mental health decline.
“Having grown up with these assumptions, I needed to rewire my brain to think differently. Now I’m just trying hard to be the best person I can be, without looking for external validation.
“I discovered that the way to trust people is to build self-esteem, by understanding our power comes from within. You can't have trust without trusting yourself. And without trust, it's a hard, lonely life. It took me living in prison to learn this lesson.”
Real Power by Dr. David Lieberman
More Difficult, More Rewarding
In September 2019, after serving 24 months in Otisville, Mark was released to four months of home confinement, to be followed by three years of probation.
As for the $694,000 in restitution, he is paying back in small increments every month.
“The system is more interested in punishing the offender than about recovering the investors’ money. Every month, I pay a bit more than legally required. If I could, I’d pay it all back.
“Life is more difficult now, yet far more rewarding. I’ve never earned less money than I do right now. As a felon, it's really hard to get a job. Yet I've never been happier. I feel more whole knowing that I have amazing power to create the life I want. I don't shy away from struggles. Facing an obstacle rather than running from it can be a great teacher.”
Mark is in the process of writing a memoir of his time in Otisville, entitled Within: How I Found My Authentic and Happy Self in a Federal Prison.
“If I’d been honest with myself, I could have avoided all of this. But I didn't have the tools. That's why I'm on a mission to share my message with the world. I can help others get to the other side, without having to go to the depths I did.”
There's nothing wrong with material possessions and making good money. Just don't let it become your master.
Mark has become a life coach and speaks at business departments of local universities.
“There's nothing wrong with material possessions and making good money. Just don't let it become your master. Don't lose your moral compass just because some manager is pushing you to do more trades so the bank can beat Wall Street estimates. Live consciously. How are you acting every day? Does it fit your moral compass and moral code?”
Mark is also working on healing past relationships – particularly with his children – knowing that they're on their own path to the point of forgiveness.
The next landmark event for Mark is the end of his three-year probation.
“The last time I visited Israel was my bar mitzvah, 40 years ago on top of Masada. I can't wait to go back. For the next 15 months I can’t leave the U.S. But when I can, Israel is the first place I want to go.”
Read Mark's blog at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/markmoskowitz/
Pre-order Mark’s book, Within: How I Found My Authentic and Happy Self in a Federal Prison