Dennis Gerwing – Embezzlement – Suicide – The Dark Side of White Collar Crime

April 23, 2008

I remember the day – a fateful day – when it all began to unravel. As soon as the first words were spoken in that phone conversation, I knew that my life was about to change and change for good. For me, all this took place in November of 1990. As I talked to one of my partners on a break from business out of town, I was innocently confronted by a fact that I had kept hidden – the fact that I had embezzled money.

My partner was unaware that there was anything wrong. He was just trying to help me by meeting a clients needs. But by doing so, I knew that my shadow side was soon to be exposed. I was a thief – a white collar criminal – and the time had now come for me to face the consequences of my actions.

Why state that here and what does it have to do with Dennis Gerwing? Well, like Gerwing, I had embezzled money (not the magnitude that he embezzled, but then money is money no matter the amount). The other more significant connection – I, too, considered suicide!

But, let’s look at Dennis Gerwing. Who he was and what happened – as best as it has been reported.

The Island Packet reported in mid March the following:

Dennis Gerwing’s business career on Hilton Head Island goes back to the 1980s. In August 1985, he was named head of the finance and administration division of Ginn Holdings Corp., then the island’s largest resort and development company. Ginn Holdings, led by developer Bobby Ginn, was the company resulting from a leveraged buyout that combined the old Sea Pines Co. and the Hilton Head Co. Gerwing had been vice president and controller for the Sea Pines Co.

The newly formed company controlled developer operations in the Sea Pines, Shipyard, Wexford, Port Royal and Indigo Run communities. But Ginn Holdings unraveled quickly. The company was sold in March 1986, a year after the Ginn purchase, and its name changed to Hilton Head Holdings Corp. Nine months later, it was in bankruptcy. The Hilton Head Holdings bankruptcy was a $100 million affair, with about 2,000 unsecured creditors — many of them local businesses — that were owed about $10 million. The rest of the debt was held in mortgages on prime property in Hilton Head.

After the demise of Ginn Holdings, a company called The Club Group was formed by Mark King, who had been director of sports for Ginn Holdings. The Club Group was a golf and amenity management company. Gerwing joined King at The Club Group by at least 1987, according to Island Packet stories. King is currently president of The Club Group and Gerwing was its chief financial officer.

The story begins an odd twist when John and Elizabeth Calvert, who split their time between their home in Atlanta, GA and a yacht on Hilton Head Island. The couple was last seen in March and effort to find them have been fruitless. Gerwing was the last person to have seen the Calverts. After being questioned by the authorities related to the disappearance of John and Elizabeth Calvert, Gerwing committed suicide on March 11th.

Now, the rest of the story as it is known thus far. Dennis Gerwing, the former chief financial officer of The Club Group, a property management company, handled bookkeeping for John and Elizabeth Calverts’ four island businesses through December, when the couple sought to move those duties in-house. He funneled money from clients into a secret checking account using hand-written checks, bank teller transactions and wire transfers, the audit found. Gerwing, according to a Club Group audit, embezzled a total of $2.1 million from the pair and seven other clients over the past four years, according to the results of a financial audit announced Tuesday.

The Island Packet reported, “In the wake of Gerwing’s apparent suicide, Club Group president Mark King hired Baltimore-based FTI Consulting to examine the company’s books. King, in a statement released after Gerwing died, said he had discovered possible financial irregularities and brought in the crisis management forensic accounting firm.”

CNN reports: Mark King, president of The Club Group, said he met last week with the clients who lost money and promised to repay them using money from his own assets as well as Gerwing’s estate and insurance settlements.

“I am still in shock over the betrayal of trust and the death of my partner of 21 years. I have no idea what might have prompted Dennis to engage in this behavior, but as chief executive, I want to apologize on behalf of our company to all who were adversely affected,” King said in a statement.

Comments: First, I can sympathize with what Mark King is going through. Betrayed trust is hard to deal with and understand. King is finding himself in a situation that I doubt he ever expected to be in – right in the middle of an investigation that likely involves murder. King’s life has been turned upside down and it will not resolve anytime soon.

Again CNN reported, The FBI will review the audit as part of its own investigation into the finances of Gerwing, the Calverts and The Club Group, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner told The (Hilton Head) Island Packet.

“I can’t support anything they put in there,” he said of the private audit. “It could be self-serving on their part or it could be what we find in the end. We’re too far from this investigation being over to make that determination.”

Investigators continue to pore over thousands of e-mails and check computers and cell phones in their search for the couple, Tanner said.

So, King finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, dealing with the death of his partner and now finding that he (Gerwing) had embezzled a substantial sum of money. King is now, in fact, under suspicion considering when funds are missing, any and all associated with the accountability of the funds are considered suspects – of sorts.

As I look back, now some 18 years, I have empathy for my former partners and what they had to deal with in the wake of my misdealings. They knew nothing and had nothing to do with my crime, yet, in many ways that, too, paid the price for the choices I made.

Suicide. Yes, sad to say, I gave that serious consideration. It was an easy escape from the consequences that I knew were before me. But, thankful to God, someone – a stranger – made a statement that I will never forget – a statement that changed my thought process and my life.

He said, “You have made a terrible mistake! YOU, however, are not a mistake. The choices you make tonight will define the legacy you will leave for your children.”

Every choice has a consequence. I know that to be true as I had to experience the consequences of my actions – which took me to federal prison. Today, some 18 years later, my youngest son is graduating from High School and preparing to enter college. What I was told so many years ago was accurate. Today as I speak around the country on business ethics and fraud avoidance, I know so well the fact that you reap what you sow. Likewise, the consequences one faces from choices made, serve only to make the person stronger.

My heart goes out to the family of Dennis Gerwing. He made a terrible mistake! Apparently, he was unprepared to face the consequences. How sad!

Comments are welcome!