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Speaker uses personal experience to emphasize importance of ethics

When Helen Sharkey started her career in accounting, she didn’t expect to one day be brought up on felony charges.

Helen Sharkey

On Nov. 2, Sharkey will share with University of Houston-Victoria students and community members how she went from her dream job in 1996 to prison. Sharkey was a consultant with Dynegy, a Houston-based energy trading company, that was brought up on federal fraud charges. She eventually pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud in 2003.

“I try to walk people through my experience and how everything fell apart,” said Sharkey, who is now a consultant and speaker. “People need to know how important it is to speak up when they’re not comfortable with what’s going on.”

Sharkey’s presentation is part of the UHV School of Business Administration Distinguished Speaker Series. The Victoria event will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. in the UHV University North Multi-Purpose Room, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. Sharkey’s presentation will follow at 7 p.m. in the University North Kay and Ron Walker Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

This will be the second time Sharkey has participated in the speaking series. She first shared her story with UHV students in 2014 at UH Sugar Land.

Farhang Niroomand

“The UHV School of Business Administration is pleased to welcome back Helen Sharkey to the Distinguished Speaker Series,” said Farhang Niroomand, dean of the school. “Her tale is one that any student or professional can learn from. Although people often choose to focus on finding positive results in business, it is equally important to acknowledge the impact of poor decisions. Helen Sharkey’s presentation offers a firsthand perspective that is not easily ignored.”

After Sharkey started working for Dynegy, she began working on a $300 million transaction called Project Alpha. As the deal progressed, Sharkey began noticing something wasn’t right.

Then when the team was in New York City to close the deal, the bank asked for a concession that would violate accounting rules. When the bank kept pushing for the concession, she deferred to her supervisor. She expected him to back her stance, but instead he chose to give the bank what it wanted.

“There were a lot of little red flags along the way,” Sharkey said. “No one thing was overtly illegal, but there were things that violated my personal ethics.”

When the Enron investigation began in 2001, Project Alpha came back to haunt her. Even though she was the lowest-level member of the team, she was brought up on federal charges and eventually spent 28 days in prison, six months under house arrest and paid a $10,000 fine.

Although the experience was jarring and painful, Sharkey has found a way to turn it into a learning opportunity for others.

“The fact is, it doesn’t matter what level you are in a company,” Sharkey said. “You can be held accountable if you don’t speak up. No one is going to look out for you, so you have to speak up and defend yourself.”

Since 2011, the UHV School of Business Administration Distinguished Speaker Series has brought in area executives to discuss contemporary business issues. Past speakers have included Heber Lacerda, president and CEO of Regency Post-Acute Healthcare System Inc.; Richard Davis, Chief Operating Officer of Katalyst Data Management; Phyllis Saathoff, deputy executive director of corporate affairs for the Port of Houston Authority; and Ron Canion, co-founder and former CEO of Compaq Computer Corp. HCCS CEO Mike Rydin spoke earlier this semester at the UHV Katy campus.

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973, offers courses leading to 70 bachelor’s, master’s and specialist degree programs and concentrations in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as a teaching center in Katy, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities, and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.