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Michael Santos

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Viktor Frankl’s celebrated work, Man’s Search for Meaning, helped many people through challenging times. I read his book during an awkward transition—after a jury convicted me but before a judge sentenced me. One of his quotes inspired me: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we’re challenged to change ourselves.”

Here is the situation. I was in my 25th year, only a few months away before authorities would allow my transfer to a halfway house in San Francisco. In preparation for the career I intended to launch when I got out, I used those final months to interview other people in prison. I collected information to write new chapters for a manuscript. 

I intended to title the new book: White Collar.

By 2012, I had written several manuscripts. The first manuscripts were for an academic audience. I wrote About Prison and Profiles from Prison for publishing houses that sold to universities. Then, I wrote Inside: Life Behind Bars in America. 

With my wife’s help, I launched a publishing company. Instead of dealing with the long wait of publishing houses, I could publish my work independently. 

I wrote books to teach and inspire justice-impacted people.

I intended to publish White Collar with expectations of using the resource to build a consulting business. Stories and lessons from White Collar would help business leaders understand how easily their decisions could lead to government investigations and criminal charges. 

Through that effort, I met Andris Pukke. 

Andris served a 15-month sentence for obstruction of justice. After listening to his story, I asked if he would allow me to write a chapter about his progress. The interview led to a ghostwriting project.

Andris told me about how he founded Ameridebt while he finishing undergraduate studies in business at the University of Maryland. He grew the company to more than 250,000 customers, and Ameridebt became insanely profitable. 

In 2005, The Federal Trade Commission sued Andris, accusing him of violating fair-trade laws. Andris fought the FTC until the government froze his money. Without resources, he couldn’t continue litigation and he agreed to settle the civil case for $170 million. I met Andris in prison because several years after he settled with the FTC, the government accused him of failing to live up to the terms of his agreement to cooperate with the agency. The DOJ then indicted Andris for obstruction of justice.

When Andris and I walked the track together in 2012, he told me his story. That’s where I first learned about a new company he had launched called Sanctuary Belize. 

Andris owned 14,000 acres on the ocean in Belize. While we walked, he told me how he had converted the jungle into a tropical paradise, with 1,000 homesites in the waterfront community. I considered him a friend and a mentor who could teach me a great deal about business.

I would need those lessons once I left prison and began building my life in society. 

As a result of writing the manuscript about Andris, we became good friends. When I finished serving my sentence, he offered me a job. I tried working with his team, but I didn’t get along with his head of sales. Although I kept a desk and office space at his company, I used my time to launch Prison Professors—as I felt passionately about improving outcomes of America’s criminal justice system. Simultaneously, I focused on building my portfolio of real estate investments.

Several years later, in 2018, Andris offered me an opportunity to invest in a new development. To make a long story short, I invested $1.4 million into a large-scale real estate project he intended to build in Costa Rica. 

The FTC sued Andris again two months after I provided him with a cashier’s check for my investment. As a result of that lawsuit, the government froze the $1.4 million I invested. 

On the advice of counsel, I sued Andris’s company to recover my investment. When I sued the company, the FTC responded by suing me. According to the government lawyers, “I knew or should have known” that Andris violated consumer-protection laws. Since I met Andris in prison, I became an easy target for the agency, and by suing me, the agency could recover the money I had invested.

Those consequences don’t follow for everyone serving multiple decades, but I experienced it. After litigating for a year, I questioned my strategy. 

  • Should I walk away from $5 million in assets I built during my first five years of liberty? 
  • Or should I fight the government to get all of my money back?

Questions help us determine the best strategies to engineer the pursuit of meaning in our life. 

In other books, I reveal details of that investment debacle. More importantly, I show how the lessons I learned from leaders while I served my sentence helped me to rebuild and recalibrate.

  • What strategies do you rely upon to rebuild after a setback?
  • In what ways have you prepared yourself to become comfortable with being uncomfortable?
  • How has your experiences as a justice-impacted person influenced your mindset?
  • What does recalibrating mean to you?
  • In what ways have you recalibrated since coming into the system?

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