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All My Buildings: Portrait of a Whistleblower

He was just doing what he thought was right. Like a character in an Arthur Miller play – call it Death of a Manager or All My Buildings – James Shields just thought he was doing what was ethical, dutiful, proper. How else explain his decision to no longer turn a blind eye on management practices that seemed more and more questionable to him as the months went by? “I had moral obligations and fiduciary duties to the tenants, so I quit,” he says. “I told them that I could no longer guarantee the sanctity of their funds. I said, ‘I have a moral obligation to tell you that you may lose your money.’”

It was not an easy decision. By his own account – and from letters sent by his clients – Shields was a popular managing agent at Charter Management, where he had handled as many as seven buildings at once. “Since you became our principal property manager our situation is dramatically improved,” wrote Queens board president Ted Scott. Others cited his “positive energy,” and his “competence and leadership” skills. Beyond that, his boss, Michael Richter, had a sterling reputation after 17 years in the business – and he was a long-time family friend (“My mother and Michael’s wife were very close,” he notes).

Yet he was increasingly troubled by what went on at the office. Bounced checks, claims of tight budgets, and then large purchases by Richter – a new house, a new scooter, all paid for in cash. “I worked there for two years and bounced checks every month was the norm.”

When he asked questions, Shields was reassured by Richter that everything was okay. “He chalked it up to being too busy, that he didn’t have time to transfer these funds. And I didn’t really know enough about the business – as to what was the norm – to take notice until the latter half of my tenure there.”

Finally, it got too much for him. “You fight yourself every single day going to work,” he says now. “You have a family. You have your own set of responsibilities, and as long as you have a paycheck, should you keep going? So going to work every day was distressing for me. You fight with yourself. Is it my place to destroy his livelihood? You know his family. You know his kids. His wife is friends with your mother for 40 years. But at some point, it does give.”

Despite angry opposition from some family members – his father and his grandparents told him that he was “an idiot” to give up a lucrative job without having another one – he quit in February 2009, which should say to some that he was a man of integrity if not common sense. Cynics might argue that he jumped before he was pushed or before Richter’s house of cards came tumbling down. Or that he wanted a reward from the IRS for the apprehension of tax cheats, a supposition that seems unlikely when one meets the earnest, detail-oriented twenty-something man.

Whatever the reason, he is currently without a job. And the college-educated former manager worries about from where the next paycheck is coming. He has a wife and small child and feels reluctant to approach management again. Skeptical that anyone would hire him – although his moral rectitude in resigning, as well as his expertise in running buildings would surely recommend him to most firms – he is currently looking at $7-an-hour jobs at pizza parlors. “How do you put Enron on your resume?” he asks sardonically. “It was my first property management job where I was given a great deal of responsibility, which I executed flawlessly. I was very good at what I did. What I’m realizing now is that whether a manager is good or whether a manager is bad has a profound impact on people’s lives. You know, tenants in my buildings would stop me in the halls and thank me. It was the most emotionally rewarding job of my life.”

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