How White Lies Topple the Mighty

I’m bummed. It doesn’t look like I’m going to get my complimentary book from Verna Jones. She’s the woman who served on a Veterans’ committee under Presidents Obama and Trump. She’s had a quick fall from grace since our Uber ride together back in July.

The other day, I happened to Google her to check if her book had a release date. Surprised, I spotted a news story that said she’d resigned her new position as Chief of Staff at the American Legion. This happened only 8 days after we met, and occurred over accusations that she had misled people about her law degree and lied about passing the bar. (Maybe she swiped a blank Trump University degree while she was in the Oval Office? You gotta figure there are probably stacks of them lying around, right?)

Trump-University-degrees big

Actually, her big mistake was probably moving to Indianapolis. If she’d stayed in Washington, D.C., trust me, she would have been fine. With President Trump telling lies and untruths on a daily basis — no one would have even noticed (or cared) that she’d fudged her resume.

But how did she get as high as she did with fake credentials? No one checked. She didn’t need to be a lawyer for her previous job. She only got tripped up when she reached the top echelon — when you get that high, that’s when people start pulling out the magnifying glass.

Sadly, it’s a shame as she seemed to be a genuinely nice person and by all accounts competent at her job and a tremendous public speaker. But why did she lie? Maybe she felt the pressure of insecurity and felt she had to play up fake credentials. It’s a shame as her story was already pretty incredible, working her way up through the ranks in the military and eventually hobnobbing with presidents.

I’m guessing no more book

This has to be terrible timing for the company set to release her book this fall — if she were a notorious celebrity, the right kind of scandal would have boosted sales. But when you’re a public figure lauded for your hard work for veterans who is writing about sexual misconduct in the military and the domestic abuse you overcame — man, that’s a tough sell for any PR person. Talk about undermined credibility. How do you spin that? I’m guessing that maybe they won’t publish it and will eat the cost that they’ve sunk into the project so far. I wonder if the publisher already sent the book to print? Or maybe that was a tall tale for the driver? I hope not.

Does her situation surprise me? No, not really. I am disappointed, though. I mean, I get it. It’s a dog eat dog world out there and you have to find a way to make yourself stand out from the crowd. The end justifies the means, right? It shouldn’t, but some people do whatever it takes while others bend the truth. Nearly everyone fudges a bit on their resume by highlighting something slightly questionable. For most of us, though, it’s something minor like playing up our mad Excel skills.

Occasionally, someone tells a story early on where they inflate themselves a little bit too much. But what is the harm in a tall tale, right? But then it follows them around as their career starts to take off and becomes part of their narrative. And eventually, people start to pay closer attention.

Some people purposefully choose to cut corners and then bluff their way to success. Verna Jones isn’t the first person to be tripped up by a lie and she won’t be the last. It’s a shame because by all accounts she’s intelligent and worked hard for the vets and was excellent at her job. She was very personable during the forty-five minutes I was with her and a great conversationalist. I liked her.

But if I was someone who’d been beaten out for a job and the fake degree was the differentiator and I found out about it, I’d be pissed.

Lying — a tried and true route to the top

For most of us, we’re not going to get that sweet gig — we’re just another average chump that people won’t give a chance because our resume sucks. But there’s a long list of people who were not about to let their crappy credentials stand in their way.

Here’s a few off the top of my head.

In my twenties, I worked with a young woman who was a shyster and her husband, a sales guy, was her equal as a shyster (By the way, they cheated on each other, surprise, surprise). Anyway, he landed a great job by lying his ass off. He told his new company that he had a master’s degree though he’d never set foot in college.

The Houseguest knew a woman in an executive position dogged by persistent rumors that she’d never finished her Ph.D. at a prestigious university overseas. But it didn’t matter — she still landed a great job. And then an even better one after that.

He ran an end-around on Notre Dame

In 2001, George O’Leary, the successful Georgia Tech coach, got the prestigious job as head coach of Notre Dame’s football team. But days later someone found out he’d fibbed about earning three letters in football as a college player when he’d never played a game. Notre Dame said no big deal. By the way, they wanted to know, was there anything else that might be inaccurate? Uh, well, there’s the master’s degree from a made up school, said O’Leary. See ya, said Notre Dame and forced him to resign.

George-OLeary

I have to give it to O’Leary though — he totally faked everyone out for 20 years with a degree from a nonexistent school. (Hey, I wonder if anyone’s ever gotten a job with Hogwarts on their resume?) O’Leary’s genius was he took the names of two real schools and welded them together, so people would hear something that was kind of familiar.

While the scandal cost O’Leary the Notre Dame job, it didn’t sink his career and he went on to serve as UCF’s head coach where he resurrected its football program and put it on the national radar.

Stolen valor

disgraced publisher Darrow Duke Tully

Locally, in 1985, Darrow “Duke” Tully, the flamboyant and powerful publisher of The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette resigned after lying for years about flying in Korea and Vietnam as a fighter pilot. He told war stories and showed up to veterans’ events in uniform as a colonel. Over time, the pressure got to him but he couldn’t help himself. He kept showing up to public events until the County Attorney (not exactly a straight arrow himself) called him out and he resigned.

A Hollywood ending

Another example that comes to mind is Edith Head, the famous Hollywood designer, who bullshitted her way into her first job creating movie costumes. Right out of college, she worked as a Spanish teacher for a bit and then answered an ad for a studio sketch artist. Trouble was, she had zero experience as a designer, but she worked at an art school where she asked each of the advanced students for one of their sketches. That became her portfolio, which got her the job. Her first day at work, it was fairly obvious she had lied. But her new boss, impressed and amused by the lengths Head had gone to land the job, decided to train her. She went on to be nominated for 35 Oscars and won 8 times.

In this clip, Edith Head talks quite candidly about how she landed the gig.

A quick study

My roommate in L.A. wasn’t quite as extreme as Edith Head — he applied for a job at Skywalker Sound in L.A. as a post-production audio editor never having worked on their type of computer system. He’d worked as a sound engineer so he had some knowhow. So, before his audition where he had to cut a tape, he showed up four hours early and asked one of the post-production guys if he could sit in the bay and watch him work — it was enough to get him the job and he later won an Emmy. But he was practically a genius.

So much for the Interwebz

I always thought that the Internet would stop fake credentials, but it still happens. Despite databases and instantaneous communication, people still falsify their qualifications. I guess companies don’t want to spend the money to check. Maybe it’s too laborious to collect fragmented information?

Anyway, I wish the best for Verna. It’s got to be difficult to overcome a scandal, but I’m sure she’ll eventually be fine. There might even be a book that could come out of it — eventually.

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4 thoughts on “How White Lies Topple the Mighty

  1. Oh wow, I remember your story about the ride with her! That’s nuts! I feel bad for her though, since it sounds like she did really excellent work and was a strong advocate for veterans and now her credibility will forever be questioned. I’m shocked that the lie about not having a law degree wouldn’t have come to light earlier, but if she didn’t need it for the positions she actually held until she moved up higher, then yeah, I guess it’s possible. Like you said, what a disappointment.

    PS love all the stories of fakers – I’m so intrigued by these kind of people/tales!

    1. Sean D. Layton

      I know. I wouldn’t have the guts to lie about a degree! I guess it’s fairly common for people to just take job applicants’ claims at face value if they can talk the talk — the problem is when they finally find themselves toward the top of the food chain and things start coming out — and now the Internet is forever.

      I have a friend who didn’t lie about his past jobs or degrees, but he lied about knowing a particular authoring program. The company hired him as a freelancer and he downloaded a trial version and tried to learn it quickly. His first month was rough because he was obviously a novice when he’d sold himself as an expert, and his work kept getting sent back, but they didn’t fire him and he got better at it.

      1. It’s interesting when like with your friend or with the Edith Head story you shared they decide they see something worthwhile in the person and decide to invest some more time in them and let them get trained rather than ditch them. But like you said, I would never be so bold as to lie about a degree! And imagine the anxiety you would always be living with!

        Although interestingly, in every job I’ve ever had (and granted, I’ve primarily done freelance work so maybe that’s a different beast, but it’s still always work that required an education for consideration) I’ve NEVER been asked to show proof of my degree. It’s like they just assume if you’re bothering to apply, you’ve got the background for it? I don’t know.

      2. Sean D. Layton

        Exactly, people want to take you at face value and rarely check. Actually, now that I think about it, I had to write 30 profiles once about young up and coming stars in an industry and one guy’s background was impressive, but something seemed fishy, so I started Googling and I couldn’t verify an award he supposedly got from a governor — and this award definitely weighed heavily in his selection. Anyway, so I started investigating — but was told by my boss to let it go as they’d already picked him as a winner.

        I had mixed emotions when I heard that Verna had resigned. It’s weird, on one hand, I hate when I think someone is getting something unfairly, but then with someone like Edith Head, it’s kind of a cool story about taking a chance and beating the odds. It depends on the job, I suppose. Someone in entertainment, for example, we kind of laugh it off — like no one thinks less of Edith Head, it’s part of the lore. But in other fields, we burn people at the stake when we find out they misrepresented themselves.

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