His life was defined by GARISH GRANDIOSITY, OPIOID ADDICTION and FINANCIAL FRAUD. HE ENDED UP IN PRISON. And then THE JOURNEY BEGAN
THE LAST BAD DECISION SLIPPED OUT OF HIM AS EASILY AS WATER OVER A FALLS.
He’d filled out the paperwork demonstrating that his law firm, Jeffrey D. Grant & Associates, had suffered economic hardship in the wake of 9/11, embellishing only a little to buttress his claim.
In Grant’s own mind, he had done nothing wrong. What did it matter that his firm was not in the shadow of the Towers, not in Manhattan at all, but way out in Mamaroneck? The ads on the radio said Westchester County businesses also were eligible for disaster relief loans. And when he called the people down at the Small Business Administration office, they confirmed his eligibility. Next came the application: He wrote down the correct and proper Mamaroneck address required of him — then he added, for good measure, a not-so-correct and proper Wall Street address. “I was desperate,” Grant recalls. “I needed that money. There was no question in my mind that my motive was to say anything I had to say — and so I described an office situation in New York that just wasn’t true.”
It wasn’t entirely false, either. Grant had an agreement with a firm at 40 Wall Street to use its conference space for the convenience of his Manhattan clients. “But I don’t think I had ever actually used the space,” Grant says. “And losing it would have had zero economic impact on my firm.”
GREED & GRANDIOSITY
At sixty-one, Grant is a powerful-looking man with a broad, expressive face and curly gray hair swept back from his temples. He reflects on his old self frankly, almost brutally, without excuses. Who was that man and how did he get that way? If you’d met him socially, you probably would have liked him. He coached his daughters’ softball team. He sat on the school board. He owned a restaurant. “I was this fun-loving, backslapping guy,” he says. “People may have been talking about me behind my back, saying I was out of my mind, I don’t know. But they would have seen this huge guy who put his arm around everyone, hugged everyone, kissed everyone.” He pauses, then adds this curious detail: “I had tons of people who probably considered me their friend — but I didn’t necessarily consider any of them my friend.”
If you’d met him professionally, you might have disliked him intensely. In 1991 he moved his family out of Manhattan, to Rye, and opened the Mamaroneck office. “That’s when things started flying,” he says. “I was a big fish in a small pond” specializing in real estate law and serving as general counsel to a company that owned hundreds of buildings. “I became increasingly arrogant and grandiose. I wasn’t a nice guy. I viewed my job as winner take all—I was like a paid assassin.”
Underlying his aggressive style were the addictions—chiefly the opioid addiction. (He originally kicked Demerol in 1986 but relapsed in 1992, after rupturing his achilles tendon playing basketball.) And underlying the drugs was an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The disease’s “up” phase seemed to endow him with special powers of perception. “I would have these moments of real clarity. Some bipolar people talk about it — it’s almost a genius. You see connections that other people can’t see.”
His success begat more success. If the firm was running low on cases, he would go for a walk and come back with ten new ones. “Everyone wants to be near successful people,” he explains. “They want to rub the arm of the person who has the golden goose.”
Meanwhile, he had fashioned a lavish lifestyle for himself and his family. “I did everything to the extreme. I was flaunting this nouveau riche lifestyle, flaunting it. There was no humility. I’d go down and lease the biggest BMW you could get. I had a house in the best section of town. We would go on shopping trips — I mean big vacations, just to shop, and we would come back with massive amounts of clothes. I didn’t even know that other families were looking at us like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Somewhere along the line, his lawyerly aggression turned to recklessness. Grant has no memory of a hard tipping point. But his risky decisions ceased paying off, as any gambler’s will. “I kind of knew that I was betting the house on every hand. I knew that. But I was powerless to stop it.” For example, he took big positions in dot-com startups, certain that just one hit would set him up for life. He had these positions written on Post-it notes and affixed to his computer. One day his assistant casually said, “What if none of them hit?” “And I said, ‘No, that can’t happen.’ But of course in 2000, when the dot-com bubble burst, it was all gone.”
Around this time, a friend who knew of Grant’s Demerol habit visited his office — he opened his hand and let a pile of OxyContin spill onto Grant’s broad, wood burl desk. “That was a whole new level, just crazy,” he said of the drug that would fuel the current opioid epidemic. “I couldn’t work at all. I couldn’t do anything. I would just go over to his house in the middle of the afternoon and sit in his den and watch The Golf Channel with him while my firm was disintegrating.”
Then came the raiding of the escrow accounts. And then 9/11. He nursed the tiny hope that the disaster relief loan, which he applied for in December 2001, could save his firm — but in embroidering the application Grant had released the hellhounds, as it were, and it was only a matter of time before they ran him down.
In 2002 a former business partner who’d learned of the investigation into the escrow debacle — now in its second year — wrote a letter to the grievance committee detailing Grant’s other sins. “He talked not just about my character, but about my drug use, about all the horrible things I’d done to him,” Grant remembers. “I think he was fundamentally right, but at the time I was appalled. A copy of the letter was sent to me by my ethics lawyer. I asked him, ‘How devastating is this to my case?’ And he said, ‘Devastating — it’s devastating.’”
On July 28, 2002, Grant resigned his law license, conceding his unethical borrowing. (Soon after, the state ordered his disbarment.) Next he called a physician friend who once again wrote out a forty-tablet prescription for Demerol. Grant picked it up at the pharmacy — this time with a sense of doom. “My life was over,” he says. “I knew I was going to try to kill myself.”
That night, after his family went to bed, he sat down in his easy chair, turned on the TV, and downed the vial of pills. Then he sank away into oblivion.
He came to, woozily, in the morning. During the night he had slid out of his chair and now he was lying crumpled on the floor. He vomited. He crawled to the kitchen to look for more pills to end the job, but no luck: His recent string of failures now included the failure to commit suicide.
In the blur of days that followed, Grant knew, as those who hit bottom sometimes do, that he would never take another opioid painkiller. He arranged admission to Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, but his wife and daughters — whom Grant had kept in the dark about the depths of his turmoil, not to mention the suicide attempt—reminded him they had a wedding to attend that night. Could rehab wait a day? “After the ceremony I walked into the bar, and they were pouring shots for the wedding party,” Grant says. “There were like fifteen shots on the bar. It’s cloudy, but I just remember it. I went up to the bar and said something either funny or pathetic, and people laughed as I drank every one of those shots. Those were the last drinks I ever had. August 9, 2002.”
In the fog of disease and addiction, Grant often believed that people were plotting against him, were taking advantage of him in ways he could not quite pinpoint. “My friends, my family, my parents, they had all done these horrible, horrible things to me,” he says. At Silver Hill, as the fog began to lift, he awoke one night and sat bolt upright in his bed. How had he not seen it before? The revelation hit him like a blunt force wound. “I realized that they hadn’t been doing horrible things to me — I had been doing horrible things to them! And I ran down the hall, crying …”
Here in his Bridgeport office, reliving the moment, Grant begins to weep.
“I ran down the hall to the nurse’s station, crying like a baby! I tried to explain to the nurse, ‘They weren’t doing things wrong, I was doing things wrong! I was the bad one!’ And she put her arm around me and started rubbing my back. And she said, ‘I know, dear, I know.’” She fetched a binder for him to see: It bore the heading “Bipolar Disorder.” Grandiosity. Arrogance. Flights of ideas. Manic mood swings. On and on and on. “I said, ‘This is me, this is me.’ And at that moment, I crossed over into recovery.”
Let us take stock of the totality of Grant’s collapse. He was no longer a lawyer. He no longer had a job of any kind, or even the prospect of one. The cocksure, larger-than-life provider was gone, replaced by a man who was a stranger to himself, down and out, disgraced. “At that point we were pariahs,” Grant recalls. “I’d had hundreds and hundreds of people in my circle. I was a big shot in Mamaroneck and Rye. And nobody came to visit us—maybe like two people. We were untouchables. We were damaged. Nobody was going to come near us.”
THE PAST DOESN’T FORGET
After the Grants sold the house in Rye, they moved to an apartment in Greenwich. Grant began attending recovery meetings three or four times a day at a local church (in keeping with the recovery code, he prefers to withhold specifics about program and venue). He would wake very early, as was his habit, and wait outside the church on a bench or in his car as the sun rolled up. Nobody would have guessed at his lost wealth and position, for instead of decking himself out in the finery of that life, he wore baggy shorts, T-shirts and a baseball cap—a uniform of self-effacement, of anonymity.
Soon he started helping a man set up the chairs before the morning meeting. Eventually the man asked if Grant would like to take on the responsibility himself—to be “the chair person.” A ray of light had found him. “It was the first time anybody had trusted me with anything,” he says of the period after his fall. “They gave me the keys—the keys to the church. And I would go into the church at 5 a.m., and I would set up the chairs, and I would do it so methodically.
“In my old life, I did everything to show off. But this wasn’t showing off. I was alone. I just felt a sense of purpose. I was actually caring for other people. I cared about how that room looked. I cared that they came into that room and felt taken care of. So I set up chairs every single morning for a thousand days. A thousand days! I didn’t go on vacation, didn’t do anything. I just set up the chairs.”
When he finished each morning, he had a couple of hours to sit in the great silence of the church and read the Bible, or pray, or meditate. “I got this overwhelming feeling that I can’t explain,” Grant says. “God was all around — I just turned myself over to Him.”
And so his became the story of a man who sensed a divine hand steering the beat-up little skiff of his life. A man who, having sweated out every ounce of arrogance through prayer and good works, won the affection of his tribe of mending souls, and embarked on a life of service. But the hellhounds did not tire; all the while they’d been gaining ground. In 2004 they caught him, and eventually ran him right into the New York media crucible, where the gentle, kindly Jeff Grant mutated into a particularly odious criminal: “9/11 Scammer Gets 18 Months for Loan Fraud.”
He learned of his new calamity in a humdrum way: His cell phone rang as he was walking along West Putnam Avenue. The man on the phone identified himself as IRS, Criminal Investigation Division. “My mind was reeling. I said, ‘Is this a joke?’ There was no part of me, none, that thought I had done anything wrong regarding that loan.” But the man convinced him otherwise: How odd it was to look from a perch of clarity upon the morass of your old life.
A couple of weeks later, he turned himself in at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse on Pearl Street in Manhattan. The concrete barricades installed after 9/11 were still up, and the military presence around the government buildings was still heightened. Grant took in the vigilant mood, so evocative of that day of destruction. A sense of shame overcame him. Certainly there was irony in the fact that he might have got his loan anyway, without embellishing; but he had embellished, there was no changing that now. He had taken personal advantage of a national tragedy.
Federal marshals cuffed him and took him to a holding cell. Hours later, at his arraignment, he pleaded guilty. Then he went back to Greenwich to await his sentence, which would not come for another two years.
The bonds of his family life, meanwhile, had frayed to breaking. So great was the fall, so humiliating were the circumstances, that it could hardly have been otherwise. Then there was the overlay of recovery — the quite real phenomenon of the recovery widow, unintentionally frozen out of her spouse’s journey. “I didn’t even know what was going on with my family,” admits Grant, who estimates that he attended 1,200 recovery meetings in his first year. “I became absentee. And there came a day that I was asked to leave.”
He left the house with two duffel bags and his clock radio. Essentially homeless, he spent the next couple of years living in people’s guest rooms and sleeping on their sofas. “I made sure my family was taken care of,” he says, “but I lived without a home until I went to prison.”
Grant considers the generosity of his recovery mates as one of many miracles along the way. Still, jobless, homeless and prison-bound, there were plenty of reasons for fear and dread, and none for hope.
One day in church, Grant turned to see a woman entering, bathed in a kind of halo light. “She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen,” he says, eyes twinkling. “I was spellbound.” She left the meeting early. Impulsively he followed her out to the parking lot, a bearish, squinty-faced man in an orange baseball cap.
“I thought he was a lunatic,” she says.
Her name was Lynn Springer. Svelte, fined-boned, with long, silvery hair, she possessed a fashion model’s beauty—a beauty amplified by her gentleness of spirit. “He had such focus in his eyes,” she continues. “It was disconcerting.”
But at least she was aware of him now. She listened with special attentiveness when he shared at meetings, and so learned his story in all its wretchedness. Did it put her off? “Jeff has told you his story,” she says to me. “Do you look at him and go, ‘Ugh, what a bad, villainous man?’ I didn’t think that. I saw him full of life and generosity and compassion. The enormousness of his heart, his joy of life, were so captivating to me. And he was so kind! I had never met anyone as kind as Jeff.” Lynn’s own marriage had ended, and such endings are almost always difficult. “I was coming from a place in my own life of extreme sadness. Of feeling unloved. Of disappointment. Of feeling vulnerable. And I was very intrigued by him.”
After a year of friendship, she and Jeff began to see each other. “When we went on our first date, I was so petrified I couldn’t hold her hand,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything. I was so damaged, so afraid.” He laughs. “I had no idea what she could possibly see in me. What a bad bet I was!”
THE PRISON WALLS
In January 2006 Grant was sentenced to eighteen months at Allenwood Low Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. (A U.S. Supreme Court case about sentencing guidelines accounted for the two-year wait; in the interim, he had repaid the loan.) “I’m sorry and I’m ashamed,” Grant told the judge. “I offer no excuse for what I did.”
Only now did the papers get wind of his crime. Though his old self might have wished the news reports had teased out the nuances of the story, his new self accepted the wave of infamy with surprising calm. And anyway, the more immediate worry was prison itself.
Allenwood is surrounded by farmland and forest; the only remarkable feature in the landscape is a reptile zoo across the street. Grant reported to Allenwood on Easter Sunday, 2006. Nobody is supposed to report to federal prison on Easter Sunday, but there had been a clerical error, one of weird significance. If Easter is about rising, then surely Jeff Grant had come to prison on the right day.
Prison has its own byzantine laws and ways, and a new inmate must pick them up on the fly. Why did the barber ignore Grant when he went for his haircut? Because everything must be paid for black-market style. You couldn’t have money in prison. So the currency at Allenwood was smoked mackerel — the fish — available for purchase, in foil bags, at certain times and in certain ways at the commissary. If you wanted your uniform ironed, if you wanted a haircut, you paid with “macks.” “God forbid you should actually eat them,” Grant says with a laugh. Because this entire system of exchange was illegal, there were designated “runners” to shuttle the macks to and fro.
Grant enjoys recounting some of these details now. But the essence of prison is harder to get at; there’s no succinct way to describe truly what it does to a person. “Once you go to prison, you lose touch with reality in some way,” Grant says. “Empathy kind of escapes. I was, like, in a deprivation tank.”
The easiest way to get by was to keep his head down, talk little, and fall into a prison groove, one day duplicating the last. Even the supposedly glad interruption of a visitor could instill unease. For one thing, a visit entailed hours-long preparation. When a prisoner was finally on the verge of seeing his loved one, he entered a sort of retaining room—and Grant is suddenly back in the present tense: “I have to strip down and stand there naked while they check between my fingers, check in my mouth, check my private parts, they turn you around, you bend over, they check you.” (There was also a litany of requirements and prohibitions for visitors. One infraction could scrap a visit for the day, such as when Lynn wore capris. A guard had judged them to be short pants, thus forbidden, and barked, “You—out of the line!”)
Lynn spent her first visit with her head in Jeff’s lap, crying. “I don’t think I had fully accepted the reality of it,” she says. “The concertina wire, the guards, the way I was treated, even as a visitor — the way Jeff was treated. The way he behaved there. The way his eyes were. Everything about it was humiliating. The guard would say something and Jeff would immediately go, ‘Uh!’ and do what he was told. He was so nervous. Just talking about it and remembering it is making me feel sick.”
A distance opened between them. She would tell him about some problem she was having back in Greenwich and seek his help, as had been her custom. “And he would say to me, ‘Lynn, I’m in prison now. What do you want me to do?’ That was his answer. And I kind of felt like I didn’t have a partner anymore. That was devastating for me. I felt so alone.”
But Grant did find his prison groove. He did it by walking — walking around the track, lap upon lap, ten miles a day. He hit upon the idea of walking clear across America. “In the library I pulled out a road atlas and plotted the course from New York to L.A., all the little towns in between, in ten-mile increments. Every day I’d vicariously be in the town that I had walked to.” Soon gang members, drug dealers and white collar offenders wanted in on the journey. “They would join me on segments and I would say, ‘Today I’m walking from Akron, Ohio, making my way down to Nashville, Tennessee.’ It was fascinating! We would talk about where we were walking and what was in that town, and we’d look it up. It was our form of escape.” In the end, Grant walked 3,500 miles, shed sixty-five pounds, and learned the life stories of his fellow inmates, human stories in all their contradictions and complexities.
Grant went free after serving nearly fourteen months at Allenwood. But when he emerged, his old joi de vivre was gone. The attitude Lynn had noticed in Jeff that first visiting day, the nervousness, the disconnectedness — he carried it back to Greenwich.
“I couldn’t look anyone in the face — I could only look at my shoes. For six months.”
“He didn’t even look at me,” says Lynn. “The shame, I guess.” Grant sighs. “It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to connect. I couldn’t.” Lynn’s daughter, Skylar, was seven when Jeff came into their lives. Though Skylar had a loving relationship with her own father, Jeff had proved a delightful bonus. “She said, ‘Mommy, Jeff is so warm and snuggly, when you sit next to him to watch TV you don’t even need a blanket,’” Lynn recalls. The post-prison Grant was decidedly cooler. “When Skylar saw him — she was thrilled to see him — she hugged him and he hugged her, but he wasn’t smiling or anything. She turned to me and she didn’t know what to do. I had to hug her and comfort her. And she said, ‘I liked him better fat.’”
Gradually, the old Jeff returned. He planted himself back in his life of service, at Liberation House in Stamford and then at Family ReEntry in Bridgeport. Family ReEntry has strong Greenwich roots: Elizabeth and Prescott Bush, sister-in-law and brother of George H. W. Bush, helped found it in 1984, and the Bushes’ friend Joan Warburg held a benefit concert each year at her backcountry estate. One year Lynn invited Jeff to the benefit, and one of Family ReEntry’s directors asked Grant if he would volunteer:
His perspective as an ex-con would be invaluable.
Feeling the old energy warm in him, Grant consulted his friend Chris Tate, the associate minister at Second Congregational Church in Greenwich. “I said, ‘Chris, I need to figure out what to do with my life now.’ He said to me, ‘I think you should go to seminary.’ I looked at him like he was crazy. ‘I’m a convicted felon. And I’m a Jew.’ He said, ‘Look, you probably have no idea what a seminary really is.’ In my mind it was where monks walk around. He said, ‘Really, it’s a place where you learn about social justice.’ ”
And that idea struck at Grant’s very core. He applied.
Around this time, in 2009, his mother was dying. Lynn helped nurse her as she faded away. “At this point we were pretty serious,” Grant says, “but I didn’t even feel I deserved to be married. Then this beautiful, beautiful woman, a big African-American nurse who was taking care of my mother, pulled me aside and said, ‘Honey, you better not let that one get away.’ On the plane ride home I asked Lynn to marry me.”
“Jeff and I each came from lives of privilege that had felt like unhappy, golden cages,” Lynn says. “Together, we left all that behind and embarked on a rocky, rough path that led us to love, hope, joy and a life beyond our wildest dreams.” Early in their relationship, she had stumbled upon a haiku by the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide — nine words, summing up her life’s hardships and stubborn beauty: “Barn’s burnt down, now I can see the moon.”
AND SO IT BEGINS
The rest of the story is epilogue. No, that’s not right. The rest of the story is Grant’s flowering into his new life. “When I show people my bio, every single thing, every accomplishment, is after prison,” he says. “They can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”
In 2012 he graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he focused on Christian social ethics. The same year, he and Lynn founded the Greenwich-based Progressive Prison Project, the first ministry in the United States to help white-collar and other nonviolent offenders deal with prison issues — earning Grant the sobriquet “minister to hedge funders,” though that only covers a piece of his mission. And they founded its sister ministry, the Innocent Spouse & Children Project, which helps the families of the accused and convicted navigate their harsh new realities. “The people at home are left dealing with the shame, the stigma,” Lynn says. “And there was a lot of it.”
Lynn tells me of people who up and walked away, bristling with disapproval, when she told them Jeff’s story. Even after Jeff became a minster, there were people who refused to shake his hand. Paradoxically, perhaps, white-collar crime tends to be less forgivable than other crimes. Even Dante says so. His seventh circle of hell is reserved for the violent; his eighth is for the frauds.
In towns like ours, the families of the convicted live quietly excruciating lives. “They know everybody’s whispering about them,” Lynn says. “And in these affluent towns the children are ostracized. ‘Oh, you’re not having a playdate with so-and-so, his daddy blah-blah-blah.’”
“There’s not a lot of services there,” Jeff adds. “There’s not a lot of understanding. You’re pretty much in a vacuum, and the sense of isolation is huge.”
The stigma he speaks of does not exist in Bridgeport. Grant often preached at the city’s First Baptist Church (and ran its prison ministry) in addition to his work at Family ReEntry, and the starkly different attitudes he witnessed vexed and fascinated him. “They have this embodied understanding of criminal justice and prison,” he observes. “It’s part of their culture, unfortunately. But they rally around one another, and they’re helpful to one another, and they’re not shunning and they are not stigmatizing.”
One of his great goals is to bring communities like Greenwich and Bridgeport together, to get them to share their common humanity. “That’s not an easy thing to do,” he admits. “There’s prejudice on both sides. Everyone is frightened of things they don’t know about.”
Certainly that was once true of Grant himself. In the end, he says, we don’t really know which of our journey’s twists and turns are good for us, and which are bad. “But I do know that the things I was most afraid of in life turned out to be the best things for me.”
Reprinted from Greenwich Magazine, March 2018 issue
Jeff Grant is the Executive Director of Family ReEntry, a criminal justice organization with offices and programs in eight Connecticut cities. He is the first person in the U.S. formerly incarcerated for a white-collar crime to be appointed as CEO of a major criminal justice nonprofit. He is also the Co-Founder of Progressive Prison Ministries – the first ministry in the country created to provide confidential support and counseling to individuals, families and organizations with white-collar and other nonviolent incarceration issues. After serving almost fourteen months in a Federal prison for a white-collar crime he committed when he was a lawyer, Jeff began his own reentry – earning a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Jeff can be reached at (203) 405-6249, email@example.com, prisonist.org.