“I am Innocent”

Nobody has become to symbolize the greedy boss more aptly than Dennis Kozlowski. Horrendously enormous compensation package led to a 25-year sentence behind bars. Now he talks.

By Peter Hossli Fotos: Charly Kurz

kozlowski4.jpgCell phones and wallets need to stay with the female jailer. Belts and shoes come off so that the metal detector does not beep. Another jailer shows the reporters the way through a steel door and into a large hall that is lit with fluorescent bulbs. A sturdy guy with a round, bold head sits motionless at a square plastic table. “Hello, I’m Dennis Kozlowski,” he says and stands up. His hand is meaty and his handshake rather strong. Through the thick glass windows, he sees a thin layer of snow, as well as razor wire made out of steel. It is cold in Marcy, a small town five hours north of Manhattan. The Mid-State Correctional Facility here opened in the early 1980s; it is a prison for dangerous criminals.

Now it is the new home of Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of the American industrial conglomerate Tyco. In June 2005, a jury convicted him of misappropriating more than $400 million of the company’s funds. He got a sentence of eight to 25 years. “Normally, visitors buy the inmates a drink,” the jailer says and points to a couple of vending machines in the corner. Kozlowski—once a CEO who, by snapping his fingers, had the world at his feet—is no longer allowed to touch money. The photographer hurries back to the gate and gets some dollar bills. He buys Kozlowski a bottle of water, which he opens gratefully. He wears green prison trousers, brown leather shoes and a pullover that was given to him by his daughter. “We’re allowed to wear private shirts,” Kozlowski says. “They need to be brown, grey, green or purple.”

He lives in a single cell that is six feet wide and ten feet long. “Every day is exactly the same,” he says. His voice is monotonous. He gets up at 6 am; by 6:30, he is out of his cell and in the laundry room where he works. Breakfast starts at 7 am and is over by 7:05. “It’s either a warm cereal or a cold cereal,” he says. “The cold cereal, you can eat. The warm cereal, you throw away; it’s not edible.” Then he’s back in the laundry room. Lunch is at about 10:30, until 10:35. “They serve an awful lot of starches and white flour products.” He is locked in his cell from 12:00 to 1:00 pm. After that, he teaches GED courses, from 1:00 until about 2:30. Mail comes at 3:00. Dinner is served at 4:00 until about 4:05. After that, he’s back in the cell. At 6:00 pm, he gets out for evening recreation. He writes letters and watches television. The lights go out at 8:00 pm.

Mister Kozlowski, you used to be known as outstanding manager. How do you use your managerial skills in here?
Dennis Kozlowski: I really can’t. There’s not much to manage except myself, and a small laundry. And I try to manage my lawyers who’re dealing with my appeal as well as the divorce I’ve been going through.

You’ve been in this prison for a couple of months now. Have you made friends?
Kozlowski: I’m in a protected custody unit. Right now there are 13 of us in the unit and the interaction is fairly limited. We have nothing in common. There are no inmates I would reasonably have over to my house for lunch. Most of them are here for sexual crimes with children. I never thought I would be sitting around and taking my meals with and sharing the same space with lots of child molesters.

What do you tell them why you’re in here?
Kozlowski: People tend to know why I’m here even before I got here. I was told by one of the officers here, “Don’t say anything as to the reason why you’re here.” When I got here, one of the inmates here already had one of the magazines about my conviction. There are no secrets in jail.
Why are you here?
Kozlowski: I was a victim of the times. I was prosecuted at a time that Enron and Worldcom and other companies got into big trouble and went bankrupt and hurt a lot of investors and hurt a lot of employees in the process.

You were convicted for tax evasion on an art deal, and for stealing bonuses.
Kozlowski: I think the jury got it wrong. I believe I earned those bonuses. I think I’m here simply because of the times. People lost money in the stock market in 2001 and 2002. Somebody had to be blamed for that. I became the poster boy for that. I still firmly believe I am not guilty of any crime that they’ve charged me with and that the jury convicted me of.

White-collar criminals normally have an easier time in prison if they admit guilt.
Kozlowski: I can admit mistakes. But there’s a difference between mistakes because that’s done innocently. I never intentionally went out and committed any kind of crime. I never stole the bonus or stole the artwork or stole money from Tyco. Everything the prosecutor got was on books and records of the company. No one was ever told to hide anything, and to shred anything, to cover anything up. Nobody ever came into that courtroom and said, “Dennis told me not to say anything.”

Still the jury convicted you. Why?
Kozlowski: Simply, I think, the case was complex and I think the jury just didn’t get it. In some years I made over a $100 million. I think having been tainted with that amount of money that the average person will say, “Well, he must be doing something wrong.” That’s why I was found guilty.

The prosecutor accused you of setting up a complex system through which you funneled money into your accounts.
Kozlowski: I turned down compensation from my compensation committee. I was offered millions of stock options, which I turned down. I was offered cash increases of hundreds of thousands of dollars in my annual cash compensation, which I turned down. I wasn’t turning down all that because I thought it’d be more fun to steal it. I sit here knowing I had no criminal intent during the 27 or so years I was with Tyco. It makes me feel horrible. But in any jail system, there are innocent people in jail, and I am one of them.

You’re compensations grew tremendously in the late nineties. Why was there never a moment when you said, “wait a minute, is that right?”
Kozlowski: Nobody deserves $100 million – no matter how good you are. But most of it came from stock appreciation. Our stock doubled every year for 3 or 4 years. I was paid about a million dollars to about a million five in cash. And everything else was earned through appreciation of the stock. I could have earned $100 million or I could have earned zero in the process.

kozlowski3.jpgYou set up a system that provided you with that amount of money. The money flew in your direction. You’re convicted for illegally enriching yourself.
Kozlowski: I had agreements that detailed my compensation. Most members of the board didn’t even read them. I was sitting on many boards of big companies, I always knew how much money the CEO made, how he was paid, in what manner he was paid, what types of perks and benefits he had. As a director, you should know.

Did the Tyco board know how much you’re getting?
Kozlowski: I certainly thought they knew. We had a management liaison that knew everything. There was nothing hidden. I purposely did not attend compensation committee meetings so they could talk about me. And I set aside a day every year for the compensation committee to evaluate me, to talk about my compensation, to say if I was over paid or under paid. So in the governance itself, the compensation committee and the board had every opportunity to discuss these issues.

Suddenly, Kozlowski gets up. “Excuse me, I’ve been drinking way too much water; can we stop so I can go to the bathroom?” the former CEO of a $100 billion company sheepishly asks. He has to go back to his cell, because inmates are not allowed to use the toilet in the visitor’s hall. He walks over to a brown door, hastily opens it and disappears. Only the buzz of vending machines penetrates the silence. It’s shortly before 11:00. A female jailer brings in a grey box. “That’s the inmate’s lunch,” she says and turns to the reporters. “We’re ordering pizza; do you want something to eat, as well?” “Can we invite Mr. Kozlowski for lunch?” “Sure,” she says and hands over a paper menu. The brown door opens, and the inmate comes out. As he walks to the table, he is rubbing his hands dry.

Without saying a word, he sits and waits for the next question. “What do you want for lunch?” the photographer asks, passing the menu to Kozlowski. First, he’s surprised, then overwhelmed. For two and a half years he was not able to decide what he wants to eat. Abashed, he looks at the menu. “I can’t read it,” he says. His reading glasses are in his cell. There are salads, pizza, sandwiches and pasta. “What are you having?” the former manager asks, hoping the reporter will make a decision for him. “A grilled chicken wrap.” “Okay, I’ll have the same,” Kozlowski says. “You want a salad as well?” asks the photographer, who’s ordering pizza. “Yes, please. I hardly get any vitamins in here.”

You grew up in a working class neighborhood in Newark. How important was it for you to climb that social ladder?
Kozlowski: I grew up in the central ward of North New Jersey, which is one of the poorer places in the United States of America. And having grown up there, there’s a tremendous desire to get out. I was told that I could get out of by hard work and applying myself and living the American dream.

How did it affect you to have that much money?
Kozlowski: It certainly meant for a comfortable lifestyle – not having any restrictions on anything you wanted to purchase any place. It is a tremendous luxury to be able to do that.

Then it was the money that motivated you?
Kozlowski: What motivated me was my identity with Tyco. That’s where I got it wrong. If the company was doing well, I was doing well. If the company was prospering, I was prospering. If there were issues in the company, then there was something wrong with me. My whole identity became wrapped up with the company as opposed to having a life outside. I missed a lot birthday parties of my daughters. I always put the company first. I was more of a workaholic than a criminal.

kozlowski2.jpgHow does a workaholic adapt to the solitude of life in jail?
Kozlowski: You cannot have a greater contrast between the two. And even now, though, I’m compulsive where I try to figure out the most efficient way to do the laundry and what’s the minimum amount of time I can spend in the laundry room? How many books can I read a week? Or how many letters can I write or how many people can correspond with? Even in reading the business press, I try to figure out what’s motivating a CEO to do something and doing it the way he’s doing it.

Which company would you want to advise right now?
Kozlowski: I think General Electric should break itself up. GE hasn’t done anything since Jack Walsh left.

You once could snap a finger and people would do whatever you wanted…
Kozlowski: …I had the corporate jet there and I could go wherever I wanted…
…you had all possible freedoms. Now you don’t. How do you adopt to this new lifestyle?
Kozlowski: It’s difficult. One of the more devastating things I’ve seen up here is we had one of the inmates commit suicide in our unit and that really brings home just how difficult the adoption to the lifestyle is. The inmate was able to cut his wrists using a plastic shaver that we have access to shave. Within minutes he died in his cell. And about 2 months after that, another inmate attempted suicide where he tied a rope around his neck. Luckily he lived.

Is suicide on your mind?
Kozlowski: Suicide is not an issue – not even remotely. I wanted you to know just how horrible this place is. I look forward to the day of getting out of here.

When will you get out?
Kozlowski: I don’t know. Should my appeal be successful in spring, I’ll be out. My sentence is 8 to 25 years. I’m available for parole after 8 years and 4 months. Now, I can do things like earn merit time here for being a well-behaved prisoner and not getting into any trouble at all. One of the biggest problems with an indeterminate sentence is that I just have no idea when I’m getting out. I can’t plan my life. And my family can’t plan their lives with me in it either.

In May 2002 you were indicted for your failure to pay New York City sales taxes on an art purchase. What went through your head when your lawyer told you?
Kozlowski: I was shocked. It was total disbelief. And I then called my board that weekend and the board decided that with this indictment coming, I could not serve as CEO of Tyco. On a Sunday night, by telephone, I was told by one of the directors that I was fired. I left my office on Friday thinking I was coming back on Monday. I never saw my office again.

You could have gotten a much leaner sentence. The prosecutor offered you a deal. Why did you not take it?
Kozlowski: It’s very difficult to say you’re guilty of something when you’re really not. I strongly believed in the judicial system. There was no employee testifying against me, there was not criminal intent. Whatever the prosecution had on me was public.

The system worked against you. Why?
Kozlowski: Tyco owed me a sizable retention agreement at the time, which they never paid. And Tyco’s attorney did a fairly effective job running an anti-Dennis campaign. They were putting out information like shower curtains and parties in Sardinia and all that. They painted me with sound bites that were very easy for the public to understand and to make it look like I was some type of out of control spender.

The media called you a pig.
Kozlowski: The media painted me as somebody that I absolutely was not. I was just sitting there in disbelief. There was story after story that was 100% wrong.

kozlowski6.jpgCertain things were very true. You did have a $2 million birthday party in Sardinia. Everybody saw the video of it. I was fairly extravagant. You were there and you saw the Vodka urinating David statues.
Kozlowski: There was a birthday party in Sardinia for my wife at the time. Now, you’ve got to look at the facts surrounding it. We had a lot of parties at Tyco for people who did extremely well. I had the same people who did these Tyco parties plan this party in Sardinia. I asked for a beach party, kind of a low-key event. Well, they went up to a country club and everybody who arrived at the country club had either a male or a female model stand there take a picture with him or her. It was embarrassing. It was tasteless. Nothing I requested or I would ever have at a party. There were children at the party. My wife-at-the-time’s parents were at the party.

The party was paid for with Tyco’s money.
Kozlowski: I personally paid for all my personal guests. We were in Sardinia for about 5 days. It was just before the Paris air show. Some of us were going on to other business in Europe. We were spending a lot of time in Europe that summer, visiting Airbus in France. We were trying to get them as a customer.

You were not able to convince the jury that the party on Sardinia was work related.
Kozlowski: The public wants to believe the worst possible at times. And the bad news gets out there first and that’s the information they run with. I have learned through this process to believe very little of what I read – if anything.

You talked to the television station CBS, now you’re talking to us. Why you still talk to the media?
Kozlowski: I’m selective. I probably turn down 90% of the requests here to talk to the media.

Why do you meet with foreign journalists?
Kozlowski: We did a lot of business in Europe. Half of our business was in Europe. And lots of letters of support that I get here come from people I did business with in Europe. They cannot fully understand what went on in America and why all this happened. I certainly think that the European press is far more fair and un-biased about most things then the American press.

So you mostly talk to the media because you want to correct your image?
Kozlowski: I will never correct my image. I will never get back to the image of a hard-working, focused, dedicated CEO. But if I could at least have people stop and think a little bit about how I had been railroading in this process and how unfair and unjust and untrue the process has been toward me. If any of the things I’m guilty of were true, I would just go hide under a rock, serve my time and get out of here. But it isn’t true. I hate my legacy to be a Sardinia party and an umbrella stand or a shower curtain.

Lunch is here, neatly packed in plastic bags. Kozlowski, who for the most part has talked with his head down, finally lifts his thick neck. For the first time, he smiles, and he breathes in deeply the smell of hot pizza. His sandwich and the salad come in Styrofoam boxes. He ignores the photographer’s “bon appétit,” eagerly ripping the wrapper from the plastic container that holds the dressing and pouring it onto the iceberg salad, tomatoes and onions. He uses his hand to put the salad leaves on a plastic fork. Without saying a word, he puts them in his mouth. “Why don’t you offer the guard a piece of pizza?” Kozlowski suddenly asks, as if he were the manager who takes care of his personnel. He grabs the sandwich and opens the bag of chips that came with it. Hastily he plugs them in his mouth.

The way Kozlowski eats says everything. His unreserved use of his hands betrays his working-class background. As a prisoner, he never has more than five minutes to finish a meal. Others decide for him when and what he eats.

He eats a bit more slowly, once the small talk turns to the US election. Kozlowski voted for George W. Bush, which he now regrets. “Bush surprised me negatively.” He supports Barack Obama, as he considers America to be ready for change. “We had 20 years of a Bush or a Clinton; that’s enough.” He listens, and he wants to know where the reporters live, and how old their children are. He happily takes a piece of pizza. “Thank you so much for this treat; it was so unexpected.” He grabs another piece. “Today, I will skip the home-cooked meal.”

As many criminals you were actually caught on tax evasions. That’s almost a cliché. Al Capone got caught on taxes. How could you be so careless and not pay taxes on the painting you bought?
Kozlowski: I didn’t know a whole lot about art when I was trying to collect some nice pieces of art. And I hired an agent to help me with the art. It was the agent’s responsibility to negotiate the price of the painting, and to cover all the taxes and transportation. And then I just see the art hanging on the wall. That was my next step in this process. I wasn’t consciously thinking about sales taxes.

You blame the agent?
Kozlowski: It was a mistake. The agent and the transportation of it even had a bad e-mail. I never used e-mail. One would assume that this agent is the person messing up. However, nobody wants to prosecute an agent. Everybody wants to bring down a chairman and CEO of a company.

Why did you buy a Monet and a Renoir in the first place?
Kozlowski: It was more about bragging rights than anything else. I wanted to be an important art collector quickly. That was ridiculous. I know it and I regret it.

As part of the sentence you also have to repay $167 million. Do you have enough money to settle this?
Kozlowski: Yes I do. Probably about 95% of all the restitution has been made to Tyco.

At the peak of your game, how much money did you possess?
Kozlowski: Hundreds of millions of dollars.

Did you ever know?
Kozlowski: No, I never sat down and counted. I never took inventory because it was in various investments and it was fluid and liquid. From time to time I would do a balance sheet, but it was not something I was obsessed about.

And how much money do you own today?
Kozlowski: Only because of the litigation and things out there, I’m just not comfortable talking about it right now.

But you still have assets to your name?
Kozlowski: Yes, I do. I can pay my fines and my restitution.

You could still live a comfortable life outside?
Kozlowski: I’m still functioning, yes.

How much money do you earn now?
Kozlowski: $2.67 a week.

kozlowski5.jpgDo you get it cash?
Kozlowski: No, I’m not allowed to handle money. I cannot touch money.

What do you do with it?
Kozlowski: I buy some toiletries, some food. There’s some commissary food, usually canned things or candy bars.

What does money mean to you?
Kozlowski: Right now it doesn’t mean anything. But it used mean a lot. It used to be the way that I kept score and the way that I determined who I was by what I was able to earn in any given year.

Did money make you happy?
Kozlowski: Well, I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich and I’ve been happier rich than I was poor, so there’s no doubt about that. Money gave me an opportunity to do things. I could put my daughters through good schools, I was able to provide homes to live in, able travel. But I think for the internal pursuit of happiness and satisfaction, I was more tied to the success of Tyco for doing that.

Money seems to have affected your marriages. You got estranged from your first wife when you got really successful.
Kozlowski: The earning of the money affected our marriage, not the money. I spent so much time at Tyco. I spent so much time traveling. I spent so many weekends away that the relationship broke down. We didn’t provide one another with the attention that we needed to provide in order to have a successful relationship.

When you got really rich you married a beautiful woman. Did she love you or your money?
Kozlowski: If I was a poor production laborer, or struggling as a reporter for a newspaper, I don’t think Karen would have had any interest in me what so ever. I was an easy guy for a woman to fall in love with at that time when I was at the top of my game. But I did not want to admit that. My first wife told me that was what was going on and she was right.

Are you still in touch with your first wife?
Kozlowski: I am, yes.

Do you talk with to your second wife?
Kozlowski: We only talk through lawyers.

You’re going through a divorce. Why is your second wife leaving you?
Kozlowski: Because I’m no longer a rich, powerful CEO.

There were times when you bought 200 companies a year. Where does this almost perverse appetite for growth come from?
Kozlowski: I think it comes initially from the shareholders. I think they had an insatiate appetite for growth and the more you grew, the more people wanted you to grow. And the more people wanted me to grow, the more I wanted to please the shareholders and do the best I can to make it grow.

What did you want?
Kozlowski: I wanted to have Tyco become one of the best corporations in the world. I’m a competitive person and I enjoyed having Tyco rise above its peers. And I wanted to be a CEO who led Tyco to becoming one of the most prominent companies in the world.

Why did you want to be that? What drove you?
Kozlowski: It’s just the desire to be competitive.

What was the secret of your success?
Kozlowski: I was able to hire and bring into the organization a lot of really good people and motivate them. We wanted to hire people who were poor, smart, and wanted to be rich. By having them do well, the company would do well. And if the company did well, they did well and we tied all that in.

This description fits you as well; you were poor, smart, and wanted to be rich?
Kozlowski: Yeah, I think I came from an environment where I was poor. I was smart and practical and I did want to be rich. So I lived that American dream of capitalism and so it did fit me and I think it did fit a lot of our senior managers and people who were running the company there.
So it was greed that motivated you?
Kozlowski: Greed in itself is not a pleasant word. But I think incentives and the ability to do well at the same time is a motivator. If you mean greed the way it’s tied into compensation and to be able to earn more as the company is doing more, then it is good.

A person who takes home $100 million seems very greedy. Are you greedy?
Kozlowski: No. I’m a generous person and my daily life and my thought process deals with being more generous. A greedy person is someone who shows up and everything is his or hers. At Tyco, the compensation was generous for everybody in the organization.

In 2001 you famously said that there are no perks at Tyco. That was a flat out lie.
Kozlowski: At the time I said that, it was true. At that time I said that we had no perks. But then perks got into the system. As the company got bigger and we were acquiring companies with perks, and management were used to having perks – perks certainly crept into system at Tyco. And I had perks.

You had free breakfast served up to your office, which makes sense considering you started working at 6 o’clock in the morning. But you also had a company apartment in Manhattan that was stuffed with expansive thinks like a $6000 shower curtain. That’s not a necessary perk.
Kozlowski: I used the Tyco apartment maybe 4 or 5 times a month. My wife or my family members never used it. I started using it to meet people in New York to talk about acquisitions or to do deals – to hide in plain view in that building as opposed to using our office building for those transactions.

It was stuffed with a $6000 shower curtain and a $15’000 umbrella stand. Who bought those things that ended up in the apartment?
Kozlowski: Oh, it was a decorator. I had no involvement in those things whatsoever. And there was a person at Tyco who did corporate facilities and who did offices around the northeast.

How can you hire a decorator who buys a $6000 shower curtain?
Kozlowski: It was horrible. The fact that I’m in jail and the decorator isn’t prosecuted is frustrating. You know, it’s bad. Her whole motivation is to run up the price because then she gets 10 or 15% of what she does. And if she decides to do something like going out and buying a very expensive shower curtain or some silly umbrella stand to justify a trip she wanted to make to Paris.

Did you ever take a shower with that curtain?
Kozlowski: No, no, no. It was in a bathroom off the kitchen. The cleaning staff used it. I didn’t even know about this shower curtain until I read about it in the newspaper. The shower that I showered in – off the bedroom – had a door. The first time I saw it was a picture of it when I was in court, when I was on trial.

You have two daughters. How often do they visit you?
Kozlowski: Fairly frequently. I see them probably seven or eight times a year.

Thy must be angry that you abandoned them. As a father you have a lifelong responsibility.
Kozlowski: Well, they’re older, so they’re taking care of themselves. They’re both working professionally. I think I’m probably angrier with myself, putting myself in a position of winding up in jail and being away from my daughters. My oldest daughter just got married in May and not being able to be at my own daughter’s wedding and not being able to walk her down the aisle was very painful and very difficult. And it’s still difficult thinking about it.

Did you meet the son-in-law before hand?
Kozlowski: Yes I did.

He came here?
Kozlowski: He actually came to court during my second trial, so I knew him before that and I was able to meet him socially. He’s a terrific guy.

You have a lot of time on your hands and you’re kind of getting to the end. What do you think before you go to bed?
Kozlowski: Well, I hope and I pray that someplace along with these appeals going on that an appeal judge will take a good, strong, objective look at this case. Probably everybody who appeals a case claims that they’re innocent. But in my case, there’s a strong record in the trials that shows that I’m innocent.

What do you regret?
Kozlowski: There’s a saying that the only whale that gets harpooned is the one that comes up to the surface. I should have been content with far more modest growth in the company. With staying off of the radar, of returning shareholders a very reasonable rate of return and to be more pedestrian CEO – doing a good job and then trying to go out there and do a great job. So I don’t think there were any rewards, only penalties associated with getting on everybody’s radar and coming up to the surface.
What was your biggest mistake?
Kozlowski: Buying art. I knew nothing about it. I was trying to become somebody I wasn’t. I needed a lot more education before I went out and started to buy important pieces of art.

Everything you’re famous fore – the tax fraud, the party in Sardinia, the shower curtain – you now say was outside of your responsibility. You blame other people for your mistakes.
Kozlowski: I just allowed myself to get too busy – to have too many things on my plate and I delegated things out to people that I shouldn’t have delegated things out to.

What do you expect from the rest of your life?
Kozlowski: I expect to leave here. And I hope I can to something that has positive impact on people.

Will you ever go back into business?
Kozlowski: As a quiet, private investor, yes, but I’ll never go back into a public corporation.

Thank you for this conversation.
Kozlowski: Thank you. When I’m out, I’d like to have lunch with you again.

You’ll pay then?
Kozlowski: I’ll buy.

Dennis Kozlowski stands up. He silently cleans up the mess from lunch, throwing away the empty pizza box and the water bottles. He puts the chairs and tables back in place.
“Goodbye, Mr. Kozlowski.”
“Oh, just call me ‘Dennis’.”

It seems that he’s happy for every friend he can get.

The interview took place in January 2008