Written by: Clarissa Alberto
Nathan Mueller grew up in a loving and supportive family. He found success in his social and academic circles, until he went to prison for embezzling nearly $8.5 million.
“I had everything going on in my life,” he said during a recent presentation at Southern Adventist University. “The one thing I didn’t have was money, and that became my focus.”
On Sept. 11, Mueller spoke at a School of Business event at Brock Hall, exhorting students to live with integrity. He was visiting the local area to do a presentation for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the Institute of Internal Auditors.
“Confessing my sins to a bunch of strangers is really scary, [but] it felt so good to hopefully use my mistakes to help other people.”
Mueller talked about his $8.5 million embezzlement, his five-year prison sentence and how the experience changed his life. The event, sponsored by the School of Business, included an introduction by the FBI agent who handled Mueller’s case, David Kukura. To Kukura, how Mueller spun what he did into something positive is a bigger story than the crime he committed.
After becoming a certified public accountant at Gustavus Adolphus College, Mueller worked for ReliaStar, an insurance company later purchased by ING.
He was the accounting manager for the reinsurance division, where he inadvertently received authorization to approve large amounts of money orders. Mueller thought of himself as honest, he told students during the presentation. He didn’t embezzle money for over a year. But, he knew that he could.
The idea of stealing became conceivable for Mueller when working two full-time jobs that proved incapable of covering his school debt, credit card debt and the costs of caring for a newborn. After rationalizing the possibility of committing fraud, he cut checks under the name of a co-worker and proceeded to authorize and send them to his personal bank account.
“It worked, and it was really easy,” Muller said about embezzling $83,000 dollars the first summer.
To camouflage the ongoing financial fraud, Mueller started gambling and soon developed an addiction, a new excuse for his crime.
“My whole fraud flipped to ‘I was stealing just [to] gamble,’” Mueller said. “ … It all became about the gambling addiction.”
When gambling wasn’t enough to cover up his sizable embezzlement, he withdrew from relationships, separated from his wife and stopped talking to his family. Then, his fraud was discovered.
“The best thing to do for me was just to be honest,” Mueller said, “ … So I came to [the FBI] with everything that I had.”
He self-surrendered in February 2009 and was sentenced to 97 months in federal prison.
“[His prison sentence] could be the end of the story … but really, for Nathan, it’s just the beginning of his story,” Kukura said.
“When I got [to prison], I had just kind of given up on life,” said Mueller. “I was really feeling sorry for myself, recognizing that the situation I’m in is 100%, my fault.”
While looking for a job in prison, Mueller met an inmate who changed his mindset when he told him: “Your life’s not over here.”
“I think I just got a second chance all around in life.”
As a result, Mueller became an education clerk while incarcerated. He joined a community awareness program, through which he was given the opportunity to speak about 60 times on college campuses and at businesses and conduct fraud awareness and ethics training.
“Confessing my sins to a bunch of strangers is really scary,” said Muller, “[but] it felt so good to hopefully use my mistakes to help other people.”
His experience working for the program gave Mueller the confidence to build a new life out of prison and to work doing workshops for the staff at an accounting company.
Mueller continued speaking for a couple of years until COVID-19 hit, and then he had difficulty finding employment.
“Being an accountant with my history, it’s not easy to find a job,” he said.
After a year of unemployment, a friend Mueller met in prison, who had started a self-storage business, offered him an accounting position with entry-level pay but manager responsibilities.
Two years later, the business had doubled in staff.
“I think I just got a second chance all around in life,” Mueller said. “I am about to turn 50, and I’m finally happy.”
Mueller said he shares his story with college students so they can learn from his mistakes.
“When you get out into the workforce, you’re going to be confronted with ethical dilemmas and questions about what’s the right thing to do,” said Kukura.
“You can’t do anything for the money. If you go into a career for the money, and you don’t love it, life’s going to be miserable.”
Mueller’s goal is to inspire at least one person to be the best possible version of themself.
When asked for his advice for college students, Mueller said, “You can’t do anything for the money. If you go into a career for the money, and you don’t love it, life’s gonna be miserable.”