Editors Note: This article was originally featured in the August issue of DS News.
Miami, Florida, with its beautiful beaches and mild weather, draws in homebuyers from all over the country—and the globe. Though the sunny state of Florida totaled nearly 46,000 homes sold in 2016, 2008 was a completely different story, marking the state low of 25,900.
With an economic recession in full swing, Rashmi Airan was approached by a real estate developer client who saw an opportunity to exploit this declining market. Rashmi was involved with executing creative transactions which would presumably help set her family up with financial stability.
A Series of Bad Decisions
Airan, a former Miami lawyer and first-generation immigrant of Indian parents, always felt the need to exude perfection. After graduating a Kent Scholar with high honors from Columbia Law School, she worked for several law firms and eventually opened her own independent law practice.
Airan was the breadwinner of her family, trying to achieve that cultural measure of success, gain status in her community, and assure overall advancement. Airan finally realized and took accountability that she had made a series of bad decisions. She eventually found herself in federal prison, and all she could think was “this can’t be happening.”
In mid-October 2007, Airan began dealings with a South Florida real estate client who needed legal assistance in the closing of condos he was selling. She was to be the closing agent, coordinating transactions with the banks and getting approvals. However, an issue arose when the HUD documents didn’t include one detail: the real estate developer was giving money back to buyers as an incentive.
The developer was promising rental guarantees to buyers over a specific period of time for a specific amount of money. Ultimately, this affected the loan-to-value ratio and, by only showing what was coming out of the escrow account—not the seller’s money going to the management company then back to the buyer, the government ruled it was a case of bank fraud conspiracy, and Airan was linked.
“I assumed that every other developer and every other real estate transaction lawyer was doing something similar— maybe not exactly the same, but something in the same realm of creative transactions—and that somehow made it OK for me to do it,” Airan said.
Airan was a solo practitioner and thought the volume of business she was handling would create immediate financial stability for her loved ones. Because of this, according to Airan’s mentor, Kendall Coffey, she rationalized it all rather than question or confirm what was really going on.
“What I think Rashmi recognizes is that when those choices were presented to her, she rationalized,” said Coffey, Partner and Founder of Coffey Burlington Law Firm. “She found ways—which smart people can often do, at least in her own mind—to justify the decisions that were made and perhaps at the time the minimization of her responsibility.”
The buyers were considered “straw buyers”, meaning they were sought out by a developer through various representatives to use their good credit to get loans. During this time—before the 2008 housing crisis—it was considered a “no-income, no-asset loan.” A person could just say they made $83,000, and the banks would believe them at face value. The buyer didn’t have to prove it; they just had to have good credit.
So, when developers found someone willing, they would say, for example, “We’ll pay you $30,000 after the closing if you take out a mortgage in your name.” This is what happened in Airan’s case, which she discovered after indictment. Everyone from the buyers and sellers to the realtors, brokers, and, of course, Airan benefitted in some way. Rashmi received the legal and title fees from each closing she handled—but she received nothing more.
“I didn’t get any additional money,” Airan said. “The only money I made, which was still significant, was in closing fees.”
In spring of 2011, Rashmi got a knock on her door. It was the FBI.
Agents presented documents from 2007 and 2008 and asked her detailed questions without her having a lawyer present. Through this interaction, they gathered enough evidence for a grand jury subpoena that led to Airan’s indictment in April 2014.
By August of the same year, Airan changed her plea to guilty and accepted that she was wrong, making her official plea December 19, 2014.
There were so many players in the 2008 crisis, and hardly anyone was tried, let alone sentenced, yet there Airan was, awaiting sentencing. As much as Airan was hurt by what happened and felt that others should—and could—be penalized, she says that she would never wish the experience of being away from her children for anyone.
Airan says it was hard for her to come to terms with what happened, but she’s done being angry about it.
“I’ve had to come to a place of peace because if I am angry about it, it’s just going to create bitterness and negative energy,” Airan said. “I have just forgiven myself and accepted what I did and moved on.”
According to Coffey, prison sentences are relatively rare for bank/mortgage fraud cases and Airan’s case could have gone on without prison time.
“For those who somehow fell onto the government’s radar—especially attorneys—there were those who went to prison,” Coffey said. “In her case, it was relatively brief, but her many supporters were disappointed. It’s not unheard of. I would describe it as more disappointing than surprising.”
By June 16, 2015, Airan was sentenced and surrendered two months later. She was sentenced to 366 days in federal prison with a $19 million judgment against future earnings. According to Airan, this day of surrender was by far the hardest. As she shuffled through the underground tunnel from the Miami courthouse to the federal prison, she donned handcuffs, shackles, and waist chains that solidified just how serious the situation was.
“Being processed, getting my DNA tested, stripping, being searched, putting on prison clothing—all of that entire experience was like a surreal, out-of-body experience,” she said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m a Columbia Law grad. This can’t be happening.’”
When Airan finally got to her room, there was not even a mattress on the metal frame. She searched other rooms and beds and finally found a bed roll that she says didn’t even qualify as a mattress.
After 10 days, Airan was lucky enough to be transferred to Coleman, the only women’s minimum-security federal working camp in Florida. Though the transfer was a hard and demeaning process, she says she couldn’t help but feel blessed in a weird way.
“I’m sitting in handcuffs and shackles on a bus driving between Miami Federal Detention Center to Federal Coleman Complex, and I think to myself, ‘Thank you, God that I get to see the sunrise,’” Airan said.
At the first prison she was in, Airan said inmates never saw daylight or fresh air the entire duration of their stay. Airan, whose name means “the rays of the morning sun,” said the sun gives her positive energy and strength, to the point that that was one of the three things she wanted to do the day of her surrender.
“Since that morning, I hadn’t seen the sunrise,” Airan said. “I get it; it had only been 10 days, but it felt like a lifetime. That was really powerful.”
Seeing it Through
Airan was committed to making the most of her life in prison. She made friends, she learned how to crochet, and she even tried to talk her friends into working out with her. She also handled the garbage every night as her job which, Airan says, gave her a lot of time to think and reflect on everything that had happened.
“It gave me a lot of time to learn and think about the things that I talk about now, which is How did I let myself get to this place? What happened? What are the lessons? How can I help people not have to go through what I went through? What good can come of this experience?” she said, “cause I’m a big believer that everything happens for your good. You just have to find what that is. Sometimes it takes a little longer to figure that out.”
Airan’s longtime friend Eliza Fendell said Airan was courageous and fearless throughout the entire process. In fact, she even called all of her friends to explain what was going on and invite them to the trial.
“We’d go out to lunch, and she’d run into someone she knew, and they’d ask her how she is, and she’d say, ‘Oh, well, I’m going through this thing, and this is what it is,’” Fendell said. “Just like—boom, right there at a restaurant. It really took my breath away every time I saw it.”
Fendell said Airan never put on a brave face or hid what was going on. She always felt that Airan faced what she had done and, in turn, accepted what she had to do.
“There were a good 100-plus people at the sentencing hearing, because she invited everyone to come and support her so that we could be a part of the process with her,” Fendell said. “I thought it was so brave. That was the only time she broke was when the judge came down with a sentence. That was it.”
Fendell said Airan’s main concern was being taken away from her children. Through Airan’s time in prison, Fendell made it a daily habit to write Airan and update her on the kids and what was going on in the community.
“I felt that I knew that I would have wanted to be in the loop about what was happening and who got elected to this, who was appointed to that, and that was an important component also,” Fendell said. “I think that was helpful for when she came back in. When she was released, I remember she texted me, ‘I’m out,’ and then the next day was at a birthday party and it was remarkable. She just fell right back in.”
Eventually, when Airan testified in another case, she got early release. She’s now committed to sharing her message as an ethics speaker, consultant, and trainer.
Ethics are a concern across many different industries, and now, Airan said, when she speaks to corporations and law firms, she feels they see her as a good person who made a bad decision. Through this, she hopes, she can help others realize the consequences of their actions—and how a drive to succeed can sometimes cause blind spots that lead to unethical decisions.
Coffey said there are so many talented people who are more than smart enough to rationalize like Airan when their ethical and legal choices move into gray zones. Though everyone knows what’s right or wrong, some decisions—particularly those Rashmi had to make—are more complex.
“I think what is very important is to find a compass for not just navigating the clear decisions, but navigating through the decisions where temptations are great, the ability to rationalize is ever present, and the ethics and legality can seem more gray than clear cut,” Coffey said.