Al Watson leaned back in his chair and surveyed his office for the last time.
His eyes scanned the college diplomas on the wall, the athletic trophies in the bookcase and the veteran’s memos on the coffee table.
Al Watson looked around, sighed, got up, and walked to the door where the FBI agents waited.
Then he surrendered and left behind the trappings of a life that never existed.
For 11 years, Al Watson worked on Capitol Hill and lobbied for a K Street firm. His employers praised his wit and his intellect, talked about his talent, and predicted a bright future.
But eight weeks ago, Al Watson’s perfect life started falling apart. The people who sang his praises just days earlier now talk about how he conned them. His friends speak in bitter tones about how they were used. A long line of creditors seek payment from someone who never existed.
“Everybody you talked to knew Al,” says John Hartlett, Watson’s boss. “There was never any question about his skill or his integrity. We all bought it, lock, stock and barrel.”
Al Watson came to Washington in 1985. He was an ex-con who served six years in prison in Georgia for writing bad checks. When he arrived in Washington, he carried a fake Georgia driver’s license with his real name and a phony Social Security number.
One night in a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue, he met a young woman who worked in the office of Silvio Conte, a Congressman from Massachusetts. Watson convinced the woman he was a Cornell graduate who was looking for work in Washington after a successful career in a brokerage firm in Chicago.
She introduced him to a friend who was looking for a staff member on a Congressional committee. Watson aced the interview and was hired. None of the phony references he furnished were checked.
Watson used his real Social Security number for his W-4 forms at work, but used the phony number to apply for credit. Although he had no credit record on file whatsoever before 1985, American Express gave him a credit card. Others soon followed.
Watson worked on the hill for seven short months before he met Hartlett, who offered him a job at his law firm.
“He was bright, knew budget issues and seemed to be just what we needed, so I offered him a job,” Hartlett said.
Watson fit right into the Washington lobbying world. He could smooze members of Congress and count votes with the best of him. His job performance reviews were glowing.
He bought a town house in Georgetown, a new Range Rover, and carried a wallet full of credit cards. Everybody figured Al Watson would be running the firm one day.
“This kind of thing should never happen, but it still does because people believe what they are told,” says Bonnie Middleton, a headhunter who recruits for associations and companies. “We find that more than a third of the resumes that come through our door contain inflated claims or outright lies.”
Middletown says firms like hers now hire people who do nothing but check the accuracy of resumes.
“Just a few years ago, most people didn’t bother to check educational references if they were more than 10 years ago. Now we do. People are not who they seem to be.”
Al Watson’s phony world started falling apart two months ago when the office computer nerd was playing around on the Internet one afternoon and came across a site that claimed to contain social security information and background information on virtually all Americans.
“So he did something he wasn’t supposed to do,” Hartlett says. “He started feeding names and social security numbers into the computer to see what he could found about the people he worked with.”
What he found out was that Al Watson’s social security number used on the application for a company American Express card was issued to a woman in Tempe, Arizona. So then the kid found a site that listed Cornell graduates by year. When he checked 1978, the year Watson’s diploma said he earned his degree, he did not find any listing for an Albert Roy Watson.
When the kid brought what he had found to Hartlett, he was shown the door.
“I fired the nosy S.O.B. for snooping into people’s lives,” he said. “But I couldn’t ignore what he had found.”
Hartlett turned the material over to a friend at the FBI. After three weeks of investigation, two agents came to see him and told him that Al Watson was really an ex-convict named Edward Lee Cunningham. Because Watson had filled out credit card applications and used the mail to send them across state lines, he had broken a number of federal laws. He also had given false information to the bank that financed his house, another federal crime.
Hartlett left the agents in his office while he went to see Watson.
“I told him I knew, told him what I knew, and said the FBI was here to arrest him. He looked me right in the eye and said ‘well, I guess it couldn’t last forever.’ He didn’t say he was sorry, he just smiled and told me to go get the agents.”
Then Al Watson met the FBI agents at the door of his office, held out his hands to be cuffed, and was led out the door.
By week’s end, he was on a plane to Georgia to face charges of parole violation.
Hartlett helped clean out the office, throwing away the phony degrees, the faked athletic trophies and other evidence of a life that didn’t exist. One of the items he found was an letter from Marquis Who’s Who, informing Al Watson that he had been selected for inclusion in the newest edition.
Then Hartlett cleaned out his own office. The senior partners decided that someone had to take the fall for bringing a con man into the firm.
“Guess I would have done the same thing in their shoes,” Hartlett said, “but it still hurts. I was conned.”
Bonnie Middleton says John Hartlett was stupid to hire someone without checking him out, but will help him find another job.
“There are a lot more Al Watsons out there. Most of them will continue to live their phony lives and they will never get caught. In today’s competitive world, too many people feel like they have to lie to get ahead. So they pad their resumes, inflate their accomplishments, and use any tactic, no matter how dishonest, to stay ahead of the game.”
“What’s sad is that people like John Hartlett will have trouble landing a new job, but Al Watson will get out of prison, land a book deal, plus talk show appearances and a movie of the week.”