King Con

Steven Russell can bluff his way out of anything -- even prison. so why can't he stay out of jail?

Obviously, $90,000 a year wouldn't cover that lifestyle. Russell told friends that NAMM had started him at $150,000, and later claimed that his salary had ballooned to $500,000. He also maintained that he made money on the side by investing in tomato futures.

"He'd call me up in the middle of the afternoon and say that he'd just made $50,000 on tomatoes," Morris remembers. "I had met somebody who could give me whatever I wanted. I never questioned anything." According to friends, Morris spent his days drinking and keeping house.

Their friend Doug Adams began to wonder about the couple's lifestyle after they invited him over to see a home video. On the screen, Morris rolled around on a bed covered with money, a la Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, saying that he had just won big at a casino.

"He was doing it because I had won some money at a casino one time," Adams says cattily. "He was just throwing it in my face. But I didn't believe him for a minute."

Russell helped Adams land a job in NAMM's finance department, coaching him to lie on his application by saying that he, like Russell, had worked at Prudential. Adams went along, but he had his limits.

Eventually, says Adams, Russell asked him if he would like to transfer to the personnel department. And Russell wondered aloud whether there was any way Morris could be added to the payroll without the annoying burden of actually coming into the office.

Adams needed the job, but didn't, he says, want to do anything illegal. That night he had nightmares. The next day, he took Morris aside to express his concern that something wasn't quite right.

Morris calmed him, explaining that Russell wouldn't do anything to endanger the couple's freedom. Adams bought the story.

During the five months that Steven Russell worked for NAMM, he pocketed nearly a million dollars of the company's money. But when he wasn't busy stealing, he did a pretty good job as chief financial officer. According to investigators, he was able to convince company officials that he was doing his job and doing it well.

At least, for a while. "He had almost no ability to deal with complex asset and equity issues," says the NAMM official. "With enough time, we would have decided it wasn't working out. But a good personality can cover a lot of sins."

But according to Russell, his bosses had qualms about him -- not about his honesty, but about his sexual preference. In a rambling, longhand response to a civil suit the company filed against him, Russell wrote that he felt pressured to lie to his bosses by claiming that he was flying to Las Vegas to marry a woman who worked for a high-powered law firm. He also alleged that NAMM officials urged him to bring his new bride to the company picnic.

The NAMM official denies that the company discrinimates against gays. He also says that it was Russell who initiated the tale about his wife -- to explain that it was she who bought the Mercedes Benzes.

But Russell never had to produce a woman. In May 1996, an official with Texas Commerce Bank notified NAMM that Russell had applied to TCB for a loan. During the credit check, the loan officer noticed alarming irregularities in a bank account that Russell shared with Morris. Since March, Russell had deposited more than $750,000.

Asked recently about the charges of embezzlement, Russell readily admitted to stealing the money. But he adamantly maintained that Morris was unaware of his actions. According to Russell, after taking over as CFO, he discovered a large number of checks that NAMM had failed to deposit. He deposited the checks in the company account, but never entered them into the company books. Then he wrote checks to Morris from the company account and deposited them into their joint account. To make the checks look legitimate, Russell made them payable to P.C. Morris, CPA; P. Morris, CPA; or Dr. Morris, CP.

There's likely some truth to Russell's version of events, but investigators say the real explanation is a bit more complicated. Though the money was indeed withdrawn from NAMM accounts, NAMM officials never even knew those accounts existed.

When Russell was hired in January, he was not a signatory to any of NAMM's accounts. But apparently he soon rectified that situation. In the documents filed in the civil suit against Russell, NAMM contends that shortly after he was hired, Russell asked a secretary to make copies for him. She got up to do it -- and on her desk she left the signature stamp for the NAMM accounts. When she returned, the stamp was gone.

Investigators believe that Russell stole the stamp, but not because he wanted to use it. Instead, when NAMM was forced to get another one, he had his name included on it. After he became an account signatory, he opened new accounts, into which he deposited uncashed company checks and transferred money from other accounts. Then he wrote checks payable to Morris from the new accounts.

Texas Commerce Bank contacted NAMM on May 13. That morning, when Russell arrived at work, his boss said that they needed to talk. Russell quickly explained that he was busy just then, and the two men agreed to meet after lunch.

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