The Long Road Back
Rob Rothberg had a promising career as a top IT manager--until the day the FBI arrested him for software piracy. Now he's fighting to rebuild a life for his family in a world that's turned very hostile.
By Paul Keegan

(MONEY Magazine) – Rob Rothberg had it made. At age 32, he was a fast-track high-tech manager leading a team of software developers at NEC Corp. and earning a solid $115,000 a year. He tooled around Boston in a sleek Acura NSX sports car and had just begun dating a pretty blonde named Shannon.

The good life turned out to be short-lived. On a cold February morning in 2000, as Rothberg and his girlfriend lay in bed, federal agents arrived at his townhouse with badges flashing, arrested him for software piracy and hauled him away in handcuffs. No one was more shocked than Rothberg, a shy, soft-spoken computer wiz who, for fun, often swapped bootlegged copies of software with friends and colleagues but never sold the programs for a profit. In Rothberg's mind, his activities were no more criminal than the song swapping that millions of music fans engaged in on the old Napster.

The FBI didn't see it that way. The Justice Department held a press conference announcing the capture of Rob Rothberg, a.k.a. "Marlenus," ringleader of a nefarious online group called Pirates with Attitudes. The charge: conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. "What I did was wrong," Rothberg admits, "but I thought of it like speeding was wrong. I'd maybe get a slap on the wrist and pay a fine."

Rothberg wasn't the only one to believe the punishment he faced didn't fit his crime. Commenting on the case at the time, Marci Hamilton, a copyright scholar at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said, "The penalty is completely disproportionate to harm caused." Rothberg initially fought the charges, but after more than two years of legal wrangling and mounting bills, he decided to plead guilty, serving a 15-month sentence.

For every Martha Stewart, Dennis Kozlowski or other high-profile white-collar criminal whose wealth and fame cushion a fall from grace, there are countless more like Rothberg, who left prison in December 2003 broke, jobless and deeply in debt. Since then he's managed to find freelance work and he has made $35,000 so far this year. But with his ex-con status hanging over him like a scarlet letter, a job close to his former status seems completely out of reach. He wakes up every day to a question he never dreamed he'd be facing back when he was a golden boy in the IT world: How does a man recover from a single colossal mistake that has turned his life into a nightmare?

The silky black hair that spills over his shoulders may have helped the prosecution paint Rob Rothberg as a dangerous outlaw. But sitting in the cramped four-room apartment he shares with Shannon, who married him two weeks before he began serving time, and their baby Ryan, seven months, he seems more like the naive computer geek who lived at home until he was 26 and used to stay up all night chatting online. For Rothberg, the virtual world offered a kind of camaraderie that he rarely found offline, particularly when he was wowing online buddies with his skill at reverse engineering software he found on bulletin boards.

In 1994, Rothberg discovered Pirates with Attitudes, an online community of techies who maintained a vast library of software--including programs for operating systems, data analysis and games--that members could download and play around with. Rothberg's technical skills enabled him to quickly move up the group's hierarchy. With access to thousands of programs, he reveled in being the go-to guy at the large bank in Boston where he was then working. "I can't count how many times my boss or a co-worker said, 'You saved the day with that software,' " he recalls.

In 1997, Congress made it a criminal offense to download copyrighted software, even if the perpetrator didn't personally profit. But Rothberg continued to rationalize his activities. After all, his employer usually bought the programs after trying out the bootlegged version, so he was actually helping the software companies generate sales! Besides, what was the worst that could happen? A cease-and-desist letter? If so, he'd simply stop.

Bad call. Rothberg and 16 others were nailed in an FBI sting operation billed as the largest case of its kind at that time. He hired a top lawyer at $420 an hour, which his father, a minimum-wage worker at a golf course in Florida, helped pay by lending him his life savings of $11,000. "It meant a lot to me that he did that," Rothberg says, "and it's very important to me that I pay him back."

His job situation was also unraveling. Rothberg, who had left the bank to work for NEC, was laid off after a corporate reshuffle shortly before his arrest; though he eventually found a new IT job, the legal bills grew so quickly that he was forced to liquidate his 401(k) and other investments to raise money, some $75,000. "It was a very difficult, depressing time," he says. "I was lethargic at work, I put on weight, and I went to see a shrink."

The only bright spot was Shannon, now 38, who stuck with him the whole way. "I tried to keep my thoughts about what was happening legally separate from how I felt about Rob and just move forward with the relationship," she says. In November 2001, Rothberg asked her to marry him and she said yes.

Otherwise, though, reality was grim. His new employer went out of business, and a subsequent consulting gig dried up when it became clear that he was headed for jail. The case dragged on and the legal fees kept climbing, eventually reaching $250,000. Rothberg decided enough was enough. He changed his plea to guilty and received 18 months in prison (although he was released after 15 for good behavior).

While Rothberg was locked up, Shannon made ends meet working as a nanny for $35,000 a year and trying to generate donations on a website, But her efforts raised only $800--not nearly enough to cover their remaining $100,000 in legal bills and $25,000 in back taxes.

When Rothberg was finally released from prison, he found that he'd become a pariah in the technology industry. A typical scenario, according to Rothberg: Dell flew him to Austin for an interview for a high-level tech job that went well until he told them of his conviction (as the terms of his probation require him to do). Soon after, he received a call saying he just wasn't a good fit. All told, he's sent out well over a hundred résumés. But he's learned that competing successfully with hundreds of applicants is next to impossible with a felony on your résumé.

Rothberg has gotten by with consulting work, earning about $33,000 last year. Shannon added another $18,000 as a nanny. But there was no money left after living expenses to pay off his debts. Last November, Rothberg filed for bankruptcy, erasing most debts to creditors, although he still owes $36,000 to friends and family.

The irony of his situation is not lost on him. Before his arrest, he made lots of money and had few responsibilities. Now it's the other way around. "I want the same things everybody else wants," says Rothberg, now 38 and keenly aware that middle age is just over the horizon. "I want a house with a mortgage I can afford and money left over to save for the future."

The Advice

There's no reason Rothberg can't accomplish these goals, say experts in career rehabilitation, but it will take hard work and patience. Here's what they suggest.

• Make a Plan and Stay Positive "You reek of failure," Eric Aronson tells Rothberg not long after they begin a coaching session. "You see yourself at the bottom of everybody's list." Harsh words, to be sure, but Aronson knows whereof he speaks. The founder of Dash Systems, a life-coaching company in Syosset, N.Y., Aronson served three years in prison for conspiracy to commit securities fraud and knows self-loathing comes with the territory.

Aronson's advice might apply to anyone trying to make a comeback from a self-created disaster. First write down a list of short, medium and long-term goals. Then do visualization exercises in which you "see" yourself accomplishing those goals, like a football player's pregame ritual of imagining himself eluding tacklers to score a touchdown. For Rothberg, a short-term goal could be to analyze companies that he wants to work for so he can show how hiring him would make the firms more productive. A medium-term goal might be to start his own consulting business. Long term: to buy a house. Making progress toward each goal will build confidence, Aronson says.

• Have a Good Explanation Handy "Rob needs to practice a better way to explain his conviction," says David Nidus of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit group that counsels ex-offenders. Don't launch into long stories detailing why you were innocent and how someone else was to blame. Instead, take responsibility for what you did and quickly move on to the positive changes you've made since. Even the tone of your voice can be a giveaway, so practice explaining yourself in a relaxed but upbeat manner. "You don't want to lie," says Nidus, "but you can take steps to better market yourself."

• Sacrifice Now, Rewards Later The Rothbergs are moving from a tiny $780-a-month apartment to a larger $1,500 place nearby--a big mistake, says Bob Hurley, a Rockland, Mass. financial planner. "They want to spend twice as much on rent and still save to buy a house?" he says. "I think they have a little problem with deferred gratification."

Rothberg says they have to move because their apartment is not child-safe and they're worried about lead-paint poisoning. Hurley counters that they could probably find a safe apartment for less than $1,500 a month if they venture a little further away. The Rothbergs reply that they love the North Shore. "And I love Aspen," Hurley retorts. "If they're serious about buying a house, they simply have to adjust their lifestyle."

Unless the Rothbergs can find a way to earn more money, the family has to find ways to cut costs to accomplish several critical goals, Hurley says. These are to buy term life insurance policies, which can be obtained for less than $100 a month; and to begin restoring Rothberg's post-bankruptcy credit rating by getting a credit card, even if the rates are high, making sure to pay the balance off every month. This will improve their credit score as time goes on. Finally, they need to buy disability insurance for Rob.

Rothberg says he'll think about all of this advice. But for now, he'd rather focus on some recent good news: He earned $35,000 in the first half of 2005 from two freelance jobs (writing software and technical documentation). And Shannon just landed a job as a part-time nanny.

Taking the additional steps outlined by the experts is scary, Rothberg admits. But then again, spending 15 months in prison is pretty scary too, and he survived. So, says Rothberg, "I'm willing to try."

The Bottom Line

The Rothbergs are determined to pay back the money lent to them by family and friends. Next up: saving to buy a house.