The ‘prison consultants’ who win soft sentences for the rich and famous

Justin Paperny - The Washington Post
Justin Paperny - The Washington Post

When Justin Paperny heard the news of Ghislaine Maxwell’s sentence, his first thought was, “She’s damn lucky.” As a prison consultant and crisis manager, Paperny has guided enough clients through the US federal legal system to know her 20-year prison term for sex trafficking could have been a good deal worse. “She could have been looking at 35 years,” says Paperny over the phone from his office in Orange County, California. “Then again, we could have helped her get out in just seven or eight. She got bad advice.”

Paperny, a reformed former stockbroker who himself did a brief stint in jail in 2008 for securities fraud, is the co-founder of White Collar Advice, a consultancy that promises to help defendants and their families through what is invariably the worst time in their lives. A lawyer helps a defendant stay out of jail, but once that becomes inevitable, a prison consultant is there to chaperone them through the next steps in the process. If you imagine a legal adviser, management consultant and life coach rolled into one, you come close to understanding the role Paperny plays for the criminal one per cent.

Harvey Weinstein hired a prison consultant, as reportedly did Elizabeth Holmes, the Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur convicted of fraud whose case was recently dramatised in the TV miniseries The Dropout. Paperny worked with former 90210 actress Lori Loughlin, and some of the 32 other parents charged with bribing their children’s way into Ivy League universities. Loughlin was sentenced to just two months in prison in 2020.

 Lori Loughlin, and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, leave the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme - Reuters
Lori Loughlin, and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, leave the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme - Reuters

“The goal is for the judge to see that one bad decision should not define someone’s whole life, and to build a picture of good behaviour at sentencing,” says Paperny, who helped the parents prepare character reference letters, as well as coaching them on what they could expect in prison.

Paperny, whose fees range from a few thousand dollars to six figures, tells me someone from Maxwell’s circle called him at one point, though they didn’t end up hiring him. He believes her case could have – and could still – play out very differently. After the trial is done and the sentence is passed, ensuring placement in a good prison is key, and is a large part of the programmes consultants like him offer.

“Her lawyers have requested Danbury [a low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut]; that’s a good option,” he says. That Maxwell’s trial judge, Alison Nathan, agreed, might help persuade the Department of Parole. “They honour around 70 per cent of recommendations that come from the judge, so she has a chance.”

Bobbi Sternheim, attorney for Ghislane Maxwell, speaks alongside Isabel and Christine Maxwell - Getty
Bobbi Sternheim, attorney for Ghislane Maxwell, speaks alongside Isabel and Christine Maxwell - Getty

Danbury, which houses 1,000 inmates in separate male and female camps, allows prisoners to make use of a running track, tree-lined lawns and a baseball pitch. It has been dubbed the “celebrity jail” because it provided the inspiration for Netflix series Orange Is The New Black.

It would be a far cry from the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), in Brooklyn, where Maxwell has spent the last two years. As a vegan who has subsisted largely on rice, chips and pizza for 24 months, the 60-year-old British socialite may finally find some variety on Danbury’s daily-changing menu. “Going from solitary confinement in a place like MDC to Danbury will be like going from a 300 sq ft apartment to the biggest mansion you could imagine,” says Paperny. However, he believes life inside won’t be easy for a criminal like Maxwell. She will face a “trifecta” of obstacles: her high-profile status, the nature of her crimes, and her age.

“Her time will be harder, not just because she’s a sex trafficker, but because of her lack of remorse,” he says. “[Inmates] respect that in prison – owning up to mistakes. What they don’t respect is people who act like they’re above the legal system. That’s the worst thing she could do.”

The two decisions that harmed Maxwell’s case most, the 46-year-old says, was first, the way she lied on her financial disclosure form about the millions of dollars she had hidden in various offshore accounts, and second, her lack of contrition at sentencing. “These would have worked against her with the judge, who would not have been impressed,” he says.

Ghislaine Maxwell and her one-time boyfriend, paedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein - Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Ghislaine Maxwell and her one-time boyfriend, paedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein - Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Paperny says a woman purporting to be a friend of Maxwell’s contacted him sometime between her guilty verdict last December and the June 28 sentencing, hoping that he could persuade Maxwell to accept responsibility for what she had done. And, although Holmes eventually took her business elsewhere, he says he once had a similar conversation with a friend of Holmes.

“They were articulating the same message – that [Maxwell and Holmes] were in denial,” he says. In both instances, the friends were worried the defendants were getting advice from people who didn’t necessarily have their best interests at heart and, as a result, were “positioning themselves to serve 15 or 20 years more than is necessary”.

Persuading white collar criminals to face up to what they have done is one of Paperny’s specialities, he says. He advises clients to think of their interactions with the sentencing judge as opportunities to tell their story – not to proclaim their innocence. It should have a narrative arc and hint at the possibility of rehabilitation.

“If [Maxwell] had said, ‘I’m truly sorry for all the harm I’ve done’, and shown remorse, she could have been out in under 10 years,” he says. “But she couldn’t because she plans to protest her innocence at appeal. So few prevail at trial,” he adds. “I have had 60 clients over the years and I’ve never had one win at trial. Not one.”

Of the nearly 80,000 defendants in federal criminal cases in 2018, just one per cent of them went to trial and won their case, according to the Pew Research Center. The overwhelming majority – 90 per cent – pleaded guilty instead. Lawyers get paid more if their clients decide to go to trial, rather than plead guilty, he points out, and it is also in their interests to appeal if their client is convicted. “How many millions did Ms Maxwell’s get?” he asks. (Upwards of $7m according to legal filings.) “If she had pleaded guilty, they would have only pocketed $500,000.”

Services like White Collar Advice are growing in popularity amid a profound shift in America’s judicial system. The majority of defendants in criminal cases in the US today end up striking a plea deal, rather than risking a jury or judge not finding in their favour. Some point to a seemingly politicised Supreme Court to explain the growing lack of trust in the judiciary. While a few such firms exist in the UK, here in the US it is a booming cottage industry.

Paperny prefers to pick up clients earlier on in the criminal process – indeed, some contact him straight after they have been contacted by authorities. That way he has the best chance to influence the outcome. Some 75 per cent of his clients are facing fraud, embezzlement and money laundering charges, while the remaining 25 per cent are dealing with more serious narcotics and sex abuse charges.

He helped Colorado businessman Daniel Stonebarger write a character reference letter to the judge after he was indicted on charges of defrauding the government out of nearly $900,000 in Covid relief funds. Stonebarger’s lawyer told Stonebarger it was the best such letter he had ever seen.

“I could have gotten 99-111 months, but in the end, and I must say because of White Collar Advice, my sentence was 41 months,” Stonebarger said in a testimonial.

But does Paperny think it is ethical to help the privileged evade proper justice?

The way he sees it, he is gaming a broken system, not exploiting it. Paperny and co-founder Michael Santos also run a not-for-profit service, Prison Professors, which allows them to extend their help to those who cannot afford the fees.

Much of the advice Paperny offers comes courtesy of his own attempts to avoid prison when the Ponzi scheme he ran for years collapsed. He stole more than $2.5 million from some 40 investors before he was discovered in 2006. After his arrest, he was “arrogant” enough to think he could outsmart his FBI interrogators with his lies. “I was not a person who placed much value on the importance of ethics,” he says. “That moral lapse led to my demise.”

Upon being found guilty and facing an 18-month sentence, the former UBS broker began searching online for “What happens when you go to prison?” He found few answers, giving him the idea for his consultancy business. Paperny, now a married man with two children, launched his business soon after his release from California’s Taft federal prison camp in 2009.

White Collar Advice now employs 11 other former convicts, each with their own consulting speciality based on where they served time and their own sentencing experiences. Among them is Brad Rouse, a well-known Broadway theatre director whose credits include the 2012 musical about Andy Warhol, “Pop!” – convicted on drug conspiracy charges 15 years ago – who prepares clients for interviews with case managers and parole officers.

The question Paperny found himself Googling is likely one Maxwell now has. The best free advice Paperny can give her is to show humility. “Her messaging needs to change,” he says. “She should say ‘I'm sorry for my decisions, I was a coward, but I'm ready to accept responsibility’. People will respect that.”