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A CPA’s Dilemma: Can Bad Behavior Be Justified?

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I recently read an article about the unfortunate case of Thomas Ziff. Ziff served as a certified public accountant (CPA) in Georgia for about 40 years. Throughout the majority of his career, Ziff was considered an upstanding professional, with no regulatory violations or complaints. That changed in 2011, when it was discovered he embezzled $300K from a trust account. He paid the money back, with interest, gave up his CPA license and turned himself in for filing a false tax return in 2015.

According to his family, Ziff was a modest spender. He reportedly drives a 1994 Toyota and buys his clothes at Costco. Why would someone in his position be compelled to steal money, then give it all back? On the surface, Ziff’s actions are bizarre and inexplicable, but after digging deeper, the rationale for his actions became clearer.

The health of Ziff’s wife, Barbara, began deteriorating over the course of their marriage, and she was forced to stop working in 2000. She had nearly 10 different illnesses, ranging from tumors to autoimmune disorders, and these illnesses required approximately 19 different medications. Ziff eventually moved his accounting practice into their home, so he could better take care of his wife.

The financial burden of the lower income and increased medical expenses began taking a toll on Ziff. He didn’t want his wife to stress about their financial struggles, so he shielded her from their issues. He used the money he stole from the trust to pay for her medical expenses and their general cost of living.

Ziff, who is now 66 years old, repaid the money he stole, but failed to report and pay taxes on the stolen income. After pleading guilty to filing a false tax return, Ziff was sentenced to seven months in prison and ordered to pay nearly $50,000 to the IRS for restitution. Yes, Ziff’s actions were wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily make Ziff a bad person.

I share this story, not to condemn Ziff, but to help others who may be struggling with similar decisions. I understand the psychological process that led Ziff to commit misconduct, but I still don’t believe I would choose the same path. I don’t know Ziff personally, so I can’t speculate about what alternative solutions he may have considered before stealing the money. I believe Ziff’s heart was in the right place, but it led him down the wrong path. Actions have consequences and Ziff’s family is now coping with his imprisonment, while also trying to care for his wife.

Our purpose at the NASBA Center for the Public Trust (CPT) is not to change unethical people into ethical people. Instead, we are targeting presumably good people like Ziff, and equipping them with tools for making better ethical decisions and analyses. Our ultimate goal is to prevent individuals from succumbing to unethical actions caused by the pressures of life and careers.

If anyone reading this finds themselves in a similar situation, I encourage you to communicate your challenges and seek assistance from friends, family, employers, support groups and other organizations. Challenge yourself to evaluate what you would do if stealing wasn’t an option. You may be forced to lower your quality of life, move in with relatives or admit that you need help, but your integrity should be more valuable than your pride. I encourage you to choose a sustainable and ethical solution that puts you in position to maintain long-term success.

Always remember, Leadership is a Lifestyle.

Ryan W. Hirsch
Operations Manager, NASBA Center for the Public Trust (CPT)