S tuart Matson, president of SatTek Incorporated, faced Assistant U.S. Attorney William Peterson across a conference table on the eleventh floor of the San Francisco Federal Building. Peterson was flanked by an FBI agent on one side and an IRS agent on the other.
On Matson’s right sat his attorney, Daniel Hackett. His other flank was exposed.
Thunder reverberated through the steel-framed building and into the book-lined room as Peterson pushed aside his unfinished morning coffee. He aligned two government-issued Paper Mates along the top edge of his legal pad, and said, “Mr. Matson-”
“Just call me Scoob,” Matson said, attempting the ingratiating smile that had begun to fail him a week earlier when he found himself in the crosshairs of a securities fraud investigation.
“Mr. Matson, this is what we call a Queen for a Day. It’s your one and only chance to convince me to allow you to cooperate with the government.”
Matson curled his hands inward toward his chest and adopted the practiced indignation of a professional salesman. “I thought you were asking for me to cooperate. ”
Peterson shifted his eyes to Hackett. “Your client doesn’t seem to grasp that we’d just as soon take this case to trial.” He turned to the FBI agent at his side. “What’s the loss?”
“Almost three hundred million dollars.” The agent’s voice was flat. He fixed his gaze on Matson, his face as expressionless as a spreadsheet. “And counting.”
“So we’re talking what? Twenty years? Thirty?” Peterson looked back at Hackett. “What do you think, Counselor? I’m sure you’ve done the math.”
Matson thought back to the day the SEC suspended trading in SatTek stock. Sitting in Hackett’s office. The lawyer’s black-haired, hawkish little head bent over the thousand-page Federal Sentencing Manual, working his mental calculator, then summing the total in a nightmarish bottom line: Unless Matson won at trial or delivered others to Peterson’s chopping block, he’d spend the next three decades sleeping in a concrete box, eighteen inches from a lidless steel toilet.
Peterson glared at Matson. “I don’t have time to waste on this.” He then pushed himself to his feet and reached down to gather his files.
As the six-one and two-hundred-thirty-pound former NFL linebacker loomed over him, Matson saw himself as he knew Peterson did: the twenty extra pounds bunched around his small frame, his soft hands with their manicured fingernails, and his face that fell just short of handsome; a chin just a shade too small, eyes just a shade too narrow, and a nose just a shade too large.
Matson blinked away the image and embraced another, one he’d earned through four decades of struggle, of standing outside his body, of molding it and training it: the steady gaze, the ingratiating smile, the trustworthy handshake, even the perfect golf swing.
“Wait.” Hackett shot his palm up toward Peterson. “Wait. Scoob wants to continue.” He swung fully toward Matson. “Right, Scoob? You do want to continue?”
Matson clenched his jaw, face reddening, furious that his freedom might hinge simply on whether the prosecutor turned toward the door. He answered, staring at Hackett, not at Peterson. “Sure. I wanna continue.”
Peterson jabbed his forefinger down at Matson. “And that means no more game playing about why we’re here.”
Matson knew that was exactly what he’d done, made a couple of preemptive moves, trying to avoid becoming Peterson’s pawn, but he looked up and said, “I’m not playing a game. I just want to know where I stand.”
“Does that mean you’re ready to listen?” Peterson asked.
“Yeah. I’m ready to listen.”
Peterson sat down, laid out his files, and then fixed his eyes on Matson.
“You know, I know, and your attorney knows that you’ve been lying for years. To the SEC, to shareholders, to your employees, and to your family. The first thing you need to prove to me is that you’re ready to step up, be a man…”
Matson imagined the prosecutor mentally pulling back his fist, then pausing before the punch.
“And just tell the truth.”
The jab landed, and the expression of satisfaction Matson saw on Peterson’s face meant that he’d seen it hit.
Matson straightened in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. He reminded himself that this wasn’t a done deal; he could still walk out, hire a half-dozen Hacketts to fortify the defense table and force Peterson to prove an intricate securities scheme to jurors whose credit card balances testified to their inability to understand even compound interest.
And Matson realized something else: It wasn’t just him sitting there wanting something, Peterson wanted something, too.
“I won’t ask you everything,” Peterson continued, “only enough to decide whether to allow you to go forward with your cooperation. And what…exactly…does that mean?”
Matson smiled to himself; it wasn’t a question, but a setup. He felt a comforting familiarity in the cadence, the beats between the words. He’d done it a thousand times himself, motivating sales teams pushing everything from silicon switches to SatTek stock: And what…exactly…does an activity quota, or a unit target, or a sales goal mean to you?
Peterson snapped him back to the present. “It means you better prove you can give us people we couldn’t indict without your testimony. If we’ve got them anyway, we don’t need you. We’ll make a deal with somebody else. And trust me, the ladies are already lining up.”
Matson cringed as a half smile flashed on Peterson’s face. He felt shaken and weakened rather than repulsed by the prosecutor’s scorn.
Voices in the hallway penetrated the conference room; muffled words followed by laughter. Matson imagined it was a joke another prosecutor would later share with Peterson. And in that moment, Matson grasped that life would go on unchanged for Peterson regardless of what happened to him. And with that realization, the balance shifted: He knew he wanted it more than Peterson did.
“If we accept your proffer, we’ll work out a plea agreement with Mr. Hackett. That’s why we call this a Queen for a Day, like the old TV show.” Another half smile appeared on Peterson’s face. “The one who tells the best story wins the crown and goes home with all the goodies.”
Matson blew past the sarcasm and reached for the prize, overcome for a moment by the urge to just give in, say whatever the prosecutor wanted, and escape the mess his life had become-
But Peterson yanked it away. “Of course, there’s no way it’ll guarantee you won’t go to the joint.”
Matson gritted his teeth against the suffocating nightmare of toilet fumes wafting toward his face.
“It comes down to this,” Peterson said. “The more people you give us, the less time you’ll do.”
Matson pasted a smirk on his face. “And who makes that little decision?”
“Me,” Peterson said. “I do.”
Matson rolled his eyes. “I figured.”
“You have a problem with that?”
“Technically, the court decides on the sentence,” Hackett said, looking back and forth between the two.
“Technically.” Peterson said the word with a dismissiveness that told Matson that there wasn’t a judge in the entire Northern District who’d rise up on his hind legs to challenge Peterson-at least not over SatTek.
“Technically,” Matson repeated, shaking his head slowly and picking at a fingernail.
“Your attorney and I have agreed that you’ll proffer information regarding the involvement of others in the stock fraud itself and in the use of offshore companies to accomplish it. Is that also your understanding?”
Matson nodded, now panicked by the admissions Peterson would extract from him and wanting to push away from the table and bolt toward the door-but he could feel neither his arms nor his legs.
“You also need to understand that the government appreciates that you have a Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. And it’s no secret to anyone in this room that by implicating your coconspirators you’ll be incriminating yourself.”
Matson found himself continuing to nod, as much to Peterson’s words as to his even tone; there was no pulling back of a rhetorical fist, no rising toward a setup; there was just a relentless pushing forward.
“But in exchange for you waiving that privilege, nothing you say to me will be used against you unless…are you listening?” Matson nodded a final time, then lowered his head. “Unless we reject your proffer, you proceed to trial, and your testimony conflicts with what you say in this room.”
Matson’s head jerked up, eyes betraying the bewilderment of a rodent snared in a steel trap. “Are you saying I won’t be able to testify in my own defense?”
Peterson leaned forward and crossed his forearms on the table. He glanced at Hackett, then bored down on Matson.
“If you had a defense, Scoob, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Peterson took Hackett aside just outside the conference room after they broke for lunch. He remained silent until the agents had directed Matson out through the lobby door at the end of the long hallway.
“I’m concerned about security at SatTek,” Peterson said, “but we can’t keep U.S. Marshals down there forever. I need your assurance that pissed-off employees won’t try to get even with Matson through sabotage or try to cushion their fall into unemployment through theft. For all I care, they can steal every stapler and coffeemaker in the place, but if I discover that any military-grade hardware has slipped away, I’ll make sure the judge hammers Matson regardless of whether he cooperates in the fraud investigation.”
Hackett tilted his head toward the inside of the room. “After what just happened in there, the last thing Matson wants is to have both you and the judge ganging up on him. Trust me, if anything gets smuggled out, it’ll be over his dead body.”