Ethics Hero and Dunce: A Tale of Two Windfalls


You can trust Robert Adams. Well, that's ONE....

Stephen Reginald McDow of Laguna Beach, California found an unexpected $110,000 federal tax refund in his bank account. He knew it wasn’t his; he also had to realize it was an error. But what the heck…he took a shot. McDow spent the money on foreclosure debts and  paying off his student and car loans.

He’s been charged with one felony count of theft of lost property, with a sentencing enhancement for taking property over $65,000, and faces a maximum sentence of four years in state prison.

There is a lot of sympathy for McDow; you can see man in the street interviews on cable where people say things like, “Hey, are you kidding me? If I found all that money in my bank account, I’d spend it too! Anyway, it isn’t his fault!” A lot of people apparently think this way, which means they are ethically inert. The issue isn’t who was responsible for the money landing in the wrong account (the rightful recipient of the refund had given the IRS the wrong bank account number), but that someone had lost money that rightfully belonged to her, not McDow, and it became his duty to fix the problem.Instead, he spent it, and crossed his fingers.

Sure, I’m a little sympathetic; a series of errors by others had the effect of presenting him with an ethics sting, a trap that exposed ethical weaknesses that might never have hurt anyone, except for someone else’s mistake. Then again, those weaknesses might have surfaced at any time; you never know when your ethics will be tested. Good ethical instincts would have made McDow’s decision an easy one, and he wouldn’t be in jail, wouldn’t have his reputation ruined, and wouldn’t be facing a criminal record. The fact that so many are saying that they would respond the same way that he did should worry them, and worry us.

Not everyone thinks like McDow, however. In Chicago, Illinois, Robert Adams didn’t have enough money to buy a drink and a burrito, so he headed to an ATM, only to find a clear plastic bag containing more than $17,000 in cash lying on the sidewalk.

Adams said he didn’t give a thought to taking any of the money. “It’s not my money. I shouldn’t take it. I don’t care if you put another zero on there, I wasn’t raised to take money that isn’t mine. If I saw you drop it, I’d say, `Excuse me, sir. I think you dropped something.'”

Adams called the police, who determined that the money had been dropped by an armored car on the way to a cross-town bank. Maybe Adams will get a reward, maybe he won’t; it is clear that a reward wasn’t on his mind when he made his decision about what to do about the lost money. Doing the right thing was on his mind, because he’s an ethical man. Now people in Chicago are singing his praises, as if not stealing money that wasn’t his is something unusual, like a two-headed calf, or a truthful politician.

Maybe it is.

That should worry us too.

24 thoughts on “Ethics Hero and Dunce: A Tale of Two Windfalls

  1. I once found a $20 bill in my dorm shower. I started knocking on doors so I could find whoever lost it.

    Some people really stink.

  2. Oh, Stephen Reginald McDow is lacking in intelligence as well as in ethics. Please, he really thought he was going to get away with $110k? Though I do appreciate that he spent it on loans and foreclosure debt, not a cruise and bottles of Cristal. Still.

    I always return change that’s too much, and track down owners of cell phones and wallets and credit cards. It’s horrible that apparently I am a rarity, except for Marlene. 🙂

  3. So…how does the Government / Victim get the money back?

    Do his student loans get put back in place? Do they seize his house?

    I’m guessing the student loans are gone. Poof. So they seize his house which was in foreclosure anyway? Now the bank and Gov’t fight over something he didn’t have any real value in, and his unforgivable debt, student loans, are gone.

    If he spends some time in state prison, he’ll be cared for and won’t have to job hunt in this depressing economy. He probably won’t even serve anywhere near the max sentence since he’s in California and they already have been ordered to release 40,000 non-violent offenders. (…and probably some violent ones.)

    I have no ethics commentary, the post said everything properly. I just don’t think this guy will really have the appropriate punishment and will be rewarded in the long run for his mis-deed.

  4. Hi. This is Bob Adams the guy who found the money. It was in fact $20,100 with the checks. I am pleased that most of the comments are positive and thought I did the right thing. The manager of maintenance at Resurrection Medical Center where I work used this story as a moral example for his two sons. I have talked to many others who told me it helped them in some way to read about this. Our mission nun Sr. Clara Frances said that I am an example to everyone. I have had my fifteen minutes of fame as Mr. Warhol said. Maybe thats reward enough. There is one person who I lost as a friend who I would like to be friends with again. Maybe this will help make that happen.

    • Dear Robert:

      Congratulations and God bless you. That example you set cannot be discounted. It’s true that any decent and clear headed adult should have accepted your action as the natural course. But it’s also true that kids don’t get many good examples these days. And they’re the ones that need them. You provided. In that, you’ve done them a greater service than, I think, every elected official in Illinois put together!

      A couple of years ago, while accessing my own name on Google (for reasons I forget!) I happened upon the story of a young teen who has my exact name. He made the news in the Cleveland area when he found an envelope in a library book containing around $2,000. He returned it and the owner was located. I don’t know if we’re related, but I’m as proud of that young man as I would be if he were my own son.

      Those examples DO matter. And they can pay dividends in ways we can’t predict. God tests us constantly… and weighs the results.

  5. Get real. This guy shouldn’t be in jail. You have to verify tax forms and certify them with your signature. Why am I responsible for what I sign and she is not? This is not justice. He didn’t steal anything. He didn’t walk past a bag of money on the street. The bag of money was stuffed right into his pocket by the careless old lady. She gave him the money with her signature and he spent it to keep the roof over his families head. People carelessly sign things every day and have to live with those decisions, but because she is much wealthier, she is dissolved of any responsibility, just like the financial crisis in 2008. Just because it’s law, doesn’t make it right. I shouldn’t be able to sign over the title of my car to someone else, hand them the keys, and call the cops once he drives away.

    • I look forward to seeing you share a cell with this crook. She made a mistake; that doesn’t forfeit her right to the money. Did you know that banks re-cycled old bank account numbers? I sure didn’t. If I misaddress a letter and send it to you with money in it, but it is clearly intended for someone else, and you keep it, it’s stealing. Trust me on this.

      To call your thinking on the subject muddled is to be overly generous. If someone accidentally stuffs money in your pocket, and you know the money isn’t yours, damn right you have an obligation to return it. You think there is some kind of a Cash Fairy exception, where if money arrives from no known source but you know you didn’t do anything to earn it, that makes it yours? Seriously? You’re the one who needs to “get real.” That’s wishful thinking/greedy thinking/down-right stupid thinking. The money came from somewhere, it isn’t yours, therefore it is a mistake, or, in other words, lost money belonging to someone else. What do you do when you find valuables that you know belong to someone else? Come on…you can do it…hint–“Loooook….”…still stumped? “Looooook fooooor…” No? Still not getting it? “Look for the owner!”

      Now that wasn’t hard…or was it?

      How he spent the money is 100% irrelevant to the issue of stealing it—spending someone else’s money is what makes it stealing, whether it is at the track or in a gift to the Little Sisters of the Poor. The fact that the rightful owner may be wealthy similarly doesn’t change stealing into the acceptance of a gift….who are you really, Robin Hood? A gift requires the intention to give, which the true owner of the money clearly didn’t have.

      The fact that many people have to live with the consequences of their mistakes doesn’t logically require that she live with the consequences of THIS mistake, because the consequences included somebody taking money that wasn’t his. “Just because it’s law, doesn’t make it right” is one of the only true things in your comment, but it has nothing to do with this case—you might as well have written “A rolling stone gathers no moss” or “I like fudge.” In this case, the law is completely right. Converting someone else’s cash to your own when you know it isn’t yours is illegal and wrong. Your last sentence is also in the “true but so what?” category. “I shouldn’t be able to sign over the title of my car to someone else, hand them the keys, and call the cops once he drives away” is an accurate statement, but not germane to the point at hand. Now, if your friend paid for the car, and you mailed him the keys but sent it to the wrong address…and the guy at that address came and drove the car away, you could and should call the cops.

      You are, in fact, seriously, tragically confused, and one mistaken bank deposit away from prison. Get some help.

      On the other hand, this is the Comment of the Day!!!

      • She entered his account number into her tax forms as the place she wanted the money to go and that’s exactly where it went. She verified and certified this with her signature. He didn’t do what you believe would have been “the right thing to do” so you choose to ignore these facts. Yes it was a mistake that he got the money, but it was her mistake, a mistake that she signed her name on, right on the dotted line. That fact may escape you, but it will not escape our legal system. She was too careless to make sure that the account number was correct. That account had been closed for 5 years. When the IRS sends those transfers, they have other information, like the person’s name. This is this is to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen. The bank fell asleep at the wheel and gave him the money anyway. I believe he shouldn’t have spent anything, and given her every dime back, but that is only what I believe. That doesn’t change the facts here. She had a responsibility to verify her information and she failed. The banks had a responsibility to check the name on the transfer with the name on the account and they failed. He wanted to work with her, but it was not good enough. After giving him all that money, she would have been lucky to get that. He’s not going to lose this case. He’s going to walk away with every dime, plus a counter suit because his name is being ran through the web like he’s some kind of criminal. I say “get real”, because we are responsible for the actions we make, regardless of whether or not we intended them to go that way or not. Let’s all just start talking back our signatures. Please grow up.

        • He stole the money. By any definition, it was not his to take. Your focus on her is peculiar, to say the least. She does not forfeit money that belongs to her because of a good faith error. It doesn’t belong to the IRS, and it certainly doesn’t belong to the guy whose account it ended up in. This is called conversion. He may well not be convicted because of people like you on the jury—O.J. walked, after all. But he’s still guilty, and a fool as well.

          You are simply wrong that she could not get her money back…she was guaranteed of getting her money back, because he had no right to it whatsoever. When a bank mistakenly gives someone money, the recipient always has to return it, and many, many people have been prosecuted—or sued— for not doing so. You are simply all wet on the law and the ethics here, and I don’t appreciate being told to “grow up” by someone whose understanding of basic property law is infantile.

          • Jack, who made the mistake? She placed a valid account number on her form, and that’s where the money went. I already admitted that this was the law, and I also said that it was wrong. Your focus on this issue is morals and ethics, and rightfully so (this being Ethics Alarms and all). I understand and respect that portion, but it is not the only one. My focus is responsibility. Why is she not responsible for her own actions? Why is the bank not responsible for theirs? You look at the countless families under water on their mortgages and what does American tell them? You should have been more responsible. Was that the same message they gave the big banks? No, they bailed them out. They were careless and greedy, yet no one was held responsible. Where is the criminal intent in this case? Did he go out and, with any action of his own, obtain this money? No. Just because it isn’t very nice, doesn’t mean it is not a valid argument. Besides, people not being responsible for their actions isn’t very moral anyway. She made a mistake and gave away her tax refund. Don’t lose sleep over this. It may seem all of the people who take the opposing argument are losing their morals, but maybe it’s option three. That both sides of this have legitimate arguments and this isn’t some open and shut type of deal.

            • She’s responsible for the fact that she doesn’t have the money, and won’t have, if ever, for a long, long time. That’s enough responsibility for me. The armored car workers who dropped the bag of money in the other case are probably going to lose their jobs, and the company might lose business, and the bank manager who hired the company might not get a raise—but that doesn’t mean that it would have been OK for Bob to keep the cash. If I lose my credit card out of carelessness, that has consequences….inconvenience, lack of commercial flexibility,,maybe some missed payments on automatic bill systems…but I don’t deserve to have somebody use it to run up huge obligations.
              Mistakes are only in the realm of ethics when they result from gross negligence. I’m sorry—I don’t see it here. I see someone who wrote down the wrong number out of habit, and a bank that didn’t catch as error that it should have, and an IRS system with some holes. None of which should result in a benefit of any kind to the guy who spent the money. It was a windfall, meaning he did nothing to deserve or earn it. And his ethical obligation was clear–straight Golden Rule, all the way.

              If your point was meant to be that the money’s rightful owner, the bank and the IRS share some responsibility for creating the mess, I have no disagreement with that—my objection is that you conclude that this changes the obligation and culpability of McDow. It just doesn’t. Fate put him in a position where he needed to avoid temptation and do what he should have recognized was the right thing, and he didn’t. I would have. You would have. He deserves whatever punishment he gets.

              • It changed the moment she signed that paper saying all of the information she entered was correct and that’s where she wanted the money to go. Your armored car and credit card examples don’t effectively compare with the situation at hand. He didn’t find this money on the ground. It was wired directly into his bank account. He didn’t earn it, or deserved it in my opinion, but that’s exactly what happened. You “see someone who wrote down the wrong number out of habit”, which is incredibly generous. Who writes an account number to an account they closed 5 years earlier out of habit? I couldn’t imagine giving away my tax return because I am light years away from wealthy, but perhaps other people do it all the time. Perhaps this is what the bank thought when they saw the transfer and allowed it. If you can envision fate in her direction, I can just as easily envision it in his. Maybe it was fated for him to get that money, to save the house for him and his family. If you or I were getting back that much, we would have had all our friends over the house reciting the account numbers over and over again to make sure it was right, but not her. “Oh, I’ll just put it in blah blah blah account. Whatever.” She waited till December to say anything. How many Americans are going to wait that long, especially on such a large refund? It didn’t matter enough for her to verify her account information, or to follow up on the refund, but it mattered enough for her to throw him in jail over it. Everyone is asking the question of whether or not they would spend the money, but no one is asking it the other way around. If that was your money, and you tracked down the person who got it, but they already spent half, would you take the other half and work out arrangements, or would you just press charges instead?

                • Surprisingly, I’m with Lawrence. The guy is an ethics dunce, but it is not criminal. If you slip 10k into my mailslot randomly, you’ve given up all your rights to that money. While I should try to figure out where it was supposed to go, how can it be illegal for me to treat it as mine?

                  • No, the problem is that there are ordinances in every jurisdiction requiring lost valuables to be turned in to authorities. It isn’t voluntary. When something you know you didn’t earn turns up in your account, you know it isn’t lost. And the woman doesn’t waive an amount owed to her by the IRS simply by making a mistake. Lawrence is just plain wrong.

                • 1) Speak for yourself. I’ve done stranger things than that.
                  2) I don’t know if there’s criminal intent or not. The post was about his ethics. He should have known enough to return it; that was obviously the right thing to do.

      • If I misaddress a letter and send it to you with money in it, but it is clearly intended for someone else, and you keep it, it’s stealing.

        If you put my name on it, it’s treated as a gift. At least, that’s how the laws about unasked for merchandise are written. If the name isn’t mine, then it’s stealing and likely a tampering with mail felony as well.

        • Unasked for merchandise is sent intentionally. If the recipient knows it’s lost merchandise—a matter for a jury—then keeping it is a crime. And he KNEW it wasn’t his money.

    • I have no problem with that…the police should be tough on false reports, even though I’d be inclined to let this one slide. It doesn’t change the reason for him getting the EH, though.

    • I have some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you. That excuse is 1) lame and 2) obviously concocted by a lawyer. This guy thinks all you have to do is send a form to the government and they GIVE you 100 grand? He is either criminally stupid or lying through his teeth…which is obviously what he is doing. It is exactly as I described it—he took a shot. He knew it had to be a mistake, and he didn’t want to know why he got the money. If I get a 100 dollar check without an explanation, I assume its in error, and I check. 100,000 dollars???????????????? You’ve got to be kidding!

      I think he’s guilty as hell, but I’ll stick with the verdict of the post: he’s unethical. Also as hell.

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