Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Behind The Scammer - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Behind The Scammer.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.

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Nora McInerny: I’m Nora McInerny. 

Marcel Malekebu: And I’m Marcel Malekebu.

Nora McInerny: And this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” And I am personally fascinated by scammers, Marcel. 

Marcel Malekebu: Me too!

Nora McInerny: Aren’t you? Aren’t you? And guess what? It’s not just you, it’s not just me, it’s us, culturally. We are saturated with scam stories right now. Who is a scammer that you think I look like? 

Marcel Malekebu: Elizabeth Holmes.

Nora McInerny: [Imitating Elizabeth’s Holmes’ deep voice.] That’s right, Elizabeth Holmes, from Theranos. Apparently we look alike. I’ve watched the documentary. I’ve listened to every podcast. I was obsessed with the Bernie Madoff story, which was also a show on HBO. Fyre Fest?

Marcel Malekebu: Yep. Yup. Ja. 

Nora McInerny: Ja. Got bamboozled, hoodwinked, led astray. [laughs]

Marcel: [laughs] Led astray!

Nora McInerny: Led astray. We are fascinated by scammers because scammers … scam people. They break the social contract, the unspoken agreement that allows us to walk through the world believing that the people we come into contact with are who they say they are. And for any scammer to be able to take what isn’t theirs, I feel like they have to be pretty likeable. Pretty charismatic. They have to have a certain something … like a person we’re going to talk about in today’s episode. His name is Isaiah Goodman. He’s a Minnesota man who billed himself as an entrepreneur and a financial advisor who was out to change the world of personal finance. 

Marcel Malekebu: And on this journey to change the world of personal finance, he was on local TV a lot, talking about personal finance, investing, and how to avoid scams.


[AUDIO FROM NEWS ARCHIVE FOOTAGE]

News Journalist: You say, "Ask about authorized users. What does that mean?"

Isaiah Goodman: Yeah, "authorized users" is very unique, so it's very special for your own family. So maybe if you're a child, you know, college student, you can ask your mom or your dad, "Hey, can you add me as an authorized user on your credit card?" Because now you'll be able to have their available balance and their history. Now, you may not want to actually get a credit card, but it shows that you've got some sort of line of history so that when you get yours, you know, you have a little bit better credit." 

News Journalist: "There we go. The older, the better, right?" Isaiah Goodman with MoneyVerbs. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Isaiah Goodman: Thank you.


Marcel Malekebu: And yet he's the unauthorized user of over $2.2 million of other people's money.

Nora McInerny: Oh boy, ain't that the truth? Wow. Wow, wow. So in June 2021, Isaiah Goodman was sentenced to seven years in prison for defrauding more than 20 clients of $2.3 million dollars. And this story, it came to us over a year ago, and it came to us through a woman named Celisia, who is about your age, Marcel.


Celisia Stanton: So I have a photography business, and I've been doing it full time for about three years. And this is focused mostly on weddings — like couples shoots, engagements, that kind of thing. I love photography, but it was really about, like, I want an opportunity to be a business owner, to be an entrepreneur. 


Fun fact, Marcel: Did you know … not only is Celisia a "Terrible, Thanks for Asking" listener, she came to our first live show. And at our first live show, we did this thing called The Bummer Awards — like, a joke on, you know, everyone always wants to compare their Terribles. And she won.

Marcel Malekebu: Oh shit. OK!

Nora McInerny: She texted me this week a picture of her holding- we'd gone to, like, thrift stores and bought old trophies, and she has hers, still! And she sent a picture of her holding her trophy after the show. So funny. But she reached out to us saying, like, "Oh, I actually have, um..."

Marcel Malekebu: A real bummer. 

Nora McInerny: "Turns out, I want to turn back in my Bummer Award, because I have a much bigger one." So her bigger bummer is that Celisia was one of Isaiah Goodman’s clients — and eventually, one of his victims. And we’ve been working on this story for … God, Marcel, it was like seven months. 

Marcel Malekebu: Yeah, it had to be. It had to be. The sentencing hadn't even happened yet. 

Nora McInerny: No, and we weren't sure if it was going to go to a trial. We were interviewing Celisia. We were using pseudonyms, because we didn't want to give this man too much attention. We didn't want to interfere with any sort of investigation. And then Celisia texts me and says, "Oh, his sentencing is in June,” out of nowhere. And it just so happens, I don't live in Minneapolis anymore, but I'm going to be in Minneapolis the week of his sentencing. I tell Marcel. And we show up to the sentencing. And while we're there, we meet other people who were defrauded by the same man. And one of them is named...

Marcel Malekebu: Reverend Michael Gonzales.


Reverend Michael Gonzales: My name is Michael Edward Gonzales. And of course, people ask me, I am a Black male, and my last name is Gonzales. My foreparents, they escaped slavery and went down to Mexico, and he picked up the, you know, surname there. Originally from Omaha, Nebraska.

Marcel Malekebu: OK. 

Reverend Michael Gonzales: So at one time was -- still kind of, sort of -- a big Cornhusker fan, you know, although almost everybody in the state is. But I came up here because of the opportunities and job-wise. And so I came up here December the 26th of '93. And I was hired at a company that was right over by the University of Minnesota, a flexible packaging company. And what the main thing that we did was we made those little ketchup bags, the pouch for Heinz. And so when I was, you know, older and everything, I was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I had a presiding elder — that’s someone who is a regional person that handles churches and everything — gave me a church. And so for the past 15 years, I have always stayed in Minneapolis and/or the northern suburbs. 


Marcel Malekebu: So the thing that these two individuals have in common, and in fact, a lot of the clients that were defrauded by Isaiah have in common, is that they're all Black people. And so what he would do is use his Blackness, or his proximity to Blackness, as a tool for him to pitch his financial literacy to people of color and people in lower-income neighborhoods. And so that's how Reverend Gonzales and Celisia essentially met him, was that they found that he could potentially help them do some financial planning.


Reverend Michael Gonzales: Basically, it was an announcement that was sent to our church. And so the Urban League said, "Well, we're going to do a couple of Tuesdays to help people out with financial planning." And I'm always looking for more advice and, you know, different things just to learn to help myself, and help other people around me also. So with that being said, I went to the Urban League class and, while there, met Isaiah.

Celisia Stanton: My mom actually referred him to me. She had met him at some event that he was speaking at. And he actually was at that event speaking specifically about how Black folks are so often like, iced out of the financial industry and don't get an opportunity to access a lot of the information that like, a lot of white people, you know, have as a result of just like, generational wealth and parents who have experience of these things. So my mom was instantly like, "Oh! This guy seems like a great fit because, you know, he's super value-aligned with things that you are already really invested in."

Reverend Michael Gonzales: And we just came in and sat down. And there was food and you sat down, you know, we’re just conversating. He was walking around, you know, with a shirt and tie on. You know, a very professional young man.

Marcel Malekebu: Well put together. [laughs]

Reverend Michael Gonzales: Well put together. [laughs] And you know, he was always smiling. If you've been around him, he's always smiling. Always, always. And, you know, it just made us feel comfortable. His whole thing mainly, in the first class, was just making sure that we understood, you know, credit and those type of things. Talked a little bit about life insurance, you know, mutual funds, and a number of things to help you out, to make sure that not only were you doing better, but people, family members, a lot of us had children or grandchildren at that time, that you could leave something behind and/or to help them out right now. 

Celisia Stanton: I was like, immediately, just like, taken by how just, I don't know, comfortable … he just like, had a comfortable vibe. Like, he just was very charismatic. Just like, friendly, talkative and like, extroverted and just seemed genuinely excited to be talking to me. And, you know, kind of asked me, like, "What made you want to have a financial adviser?" One thing I remember about his website is he had like, reviews on there, and there was like, people who just seemed like normal people — like, teachers or like, just like, average people. And they were like, "Wow, Isaiah helped me budget for a house or helped me start saving for retirement," just like, really sort of introductory goals in the financial world. And so that made me feel really reaffirmed. And he said that he was a fiduciary, which, like, I knew that being a fiduciary was a good thing. You're taking on extra legal burdens, essentially, if you're a fiduciary, because you have to do what's in the best interest of the clients. And everything I had read to that point was like, “If you can get a fiduciary as your financial advisor, that's like, the best case scenario.”


Nora McInerny: So, I mean, it's not hard to see why people would trust this guy. At all. He has like, a good energy to him. He seems to be really invested in them personally. And a fiduciary, again, feels like an extra level of, like, safeguarding, right? They have a duty to act in your best interests, legally. 

Marcel Malekebu: Right. So it's like at the end of the day, you wouldn't suspect that somebody so knowledgeable, so giving, smiling all the time, could possibly have any other intention.

Nora McInerny: So I never invested with Isaiah Goodman, but I probably would have. I did follow his company on Instagram. I followed MoneyVerbs for a while, because he was working with a friend of mine who was, like, a Minneapolis influencer, and because I'm so interested in money. Because it's one of those things that I don't know a lot about. And the fact that I don't know a lot about money is, like, an insecurity of mine, and I think a lot of people have that insecurity. You want to be financially intelligent, not just financially literate. It feels like a part of adulthood. It's so tied to our security. And money is also a really emotional thing. 

Marcel Malekebu: Yeah, of course. It's like, especially if you come from a place where you grew up with having less, or you're aware of the fact that you don't know what to do with money, I think that's the main thing is like, the awareness that people like Celisia and Reverend Gonzales have, that, you know, “We don't know what to do with money, and we're aware of that fact.” And so it's, like, easy for someone to end up playing on that fact and let you know. Because it's like if someone tells you, "Hey, you could be in better shape," and you could be in better shape, then you're like, "Well, yes, this is true."

Nora McInerny: Yeah. And also when you look at his life on Instagram — his life, his wife — things look really good, right? They've got four kids. They live in a really nice suburb. They've got a beautiful house. They're taking vacations. You know, they have professional photos. I think one of the reasons why money is so emotional is because money is what helps us take care of ourselves, take care of our lives, take care of the people that we care about.

Marcel Malekebu: Right. And you gotta think like, Reverend Gonzales, his sister-in-law has early onset dementia that came on when she was 54 years old. She’s only 62 now. And for a while, you know, the family’s just helping to take care of her at home. But it got kind of harder and harder as time went on. And eventually Reverend Gonzales’s wife, Robin, gets granted power of attorney over her sister's medical care and financial assets so they can figure something else out.


Reverend Michael Gonzales: They just finally realized that they just couldn't do it anymore, because everybody worked. So it was just a strain. And it was hard to find, you know, good people to come in and want to take care of her. And so they had to put her into a care place. [Marcel: Okay.] It basically cost about $6,700 a month for her to have her care. So that's about $80,000 a year. With that being said, Robin’s family, they live a long time. Her grandmother had been in a care place for 13 years. So if her sister was going to live at least that long, that would be a million dollars. [Marcel: Right.] So we were looking, you know, to put her money in a place where it can grow to help to, you know, to offset some of that cost.


Nora McInerny: And Celisia's situation is obviously different. She's much, much younger. She was growing her business, her photography business. It was getting successful. She just wanted to basically take care of her future self. And she knew from experience, from life experience, how hard it is to be living paycheck to paycheck. She didn't want that for her future. She was looking out for Future Celisia. 


Celisia Stanton: I kind of realized from a young age that, like, you have to be very intentional about the ways that you're using that money, the ways that you're saving and investing that money. I think the system is like, super complicated. And so I kind of like, really wanted to not be in a situation when I was older where I felt like I had to work my entire life. And so my thought was, “OK, I've started this business. It's relatively successful financially. That's great. I'm able to pay all my bills and have extra left over. So I know these bigger goals that I have are going to be a lot more money than just like, monthly rent or like, the food that I eat on a daily basis. So I need to plan right now for those things.” Because like, apparently if you don't start saving for retirement when you're 25, you just might be screwed. So I was like, kind of going into it with that in mind, like, “I need a financial advisor because there's all these rules, and I don't understand them. And there's this huge system that is super confusing to me, and I don't understand anything about stocks. And I just like, need somebody to be able to explain this to me and that I can trust to do this so that I know that I'm doing it correctly.” 


Marcel Malekebu: And you know, the thing is, Isaiah’s not just helping people plan their finances. He’s also created this new app he's created called MoneyVerbs that helps people sort of educate themselves about money. And so he’s been making his rounds on local talk shows as a finance expert.


[AUDIO FROM NEWS ARCHIVE FOOTAGE]

Isaiah Goodman: Well, hey, everybody. Super, super excited to be sharing this with you today. We've got the team from MoneyVerbs, and we're going to be talking about how we experience money differently and how MoneyVerbs we're hoping to have you do the exact same thing.

News Journalist 1: Joining us now is Isaiah Goodman from MoneyVerbs. Isaiah, thanks for being with us. 

Isaiah Goodman: Hey, guys. It's a pleasure. 

News Journalist 2: I'm talking to Isaiah Goodman. He is the CEO and founder of, are you ready for this? MoneyVerbs.

[END OF AUDIO FROM NEWS ARCHIVE FOOTAGE]

Marcel Malekebu: And what did MoneyVerbs consist of? What was that about? 

Reverend Michael Gonzales: Well, the same type of thing, except for it was going to be online training, where he was going to set up online classes and you could take these classes and you would pay for them. And that way, you could build up your financial knowledge. So we were talking about it, and he asked us if we wanted to kind of invest a little bit in it. You know, and we said, "Yeah, you know, we can do a little something." And so we invested $4,000 to help him to get started.

Celisia Stanton: He pitched it to me on our very first call when we were talking about, like, systemic inequality and all of that. He said, "You know, for folks who cannot afford to pay my $1,500 fee, I have this alternative, which is this app that I've been working really hard on. And it gives people all of this information about financial planning so that they can, you know, basically play around with money in the app, where there's no risk, and learn all of this stuff and then apply it to their life."


Marcel Malekebu: So again, this is another reason to trust Isaiah, because he's not just asking people for their money without giving anything back. He's actually giving people who don't typically have access to financial planning or financial advice a chance to learn how to plan their financial future and make smart investments with their money. 


Reverend Michael Gonzales: We had this money sitting here and he said, "Well, I can get you a better return of what you're doing now. So my sister-in-law's money, hers was the most. And then Robin and me both have 401ks. And so we transferred them, oh, probably about a couple of months afterwards.

Marcel Malekebu: So how much money do you turn over to Isaiah Goodman when you give him this money?

Reverend Michael Gonzales: Over $450,000. That's the first time I've said that out loud to anybody. It is what it is. But, you know, we turned the money over. He quote unquote puts into these accounts. We can go online and look at the money. And so, you know, some people say, "Did you have a statement sent out?" We said, "No," you know, everything was done online. You know, a lot of it is online now. And we was looking at it, and Robin was always checking it and looking at it. And she said, "Oh man, this is kicking! You know, this is doing real good!" 

Marcel Malekebu: So the accounts were showing growth? Like, when you would check every month or every whatever, they were showing growth? 

Reverend Michael Gonzales: Yes. Yes! [laughs] Yeah, I'll be. Yeah. It was like, "All righty, then!"

Celisia Stanton: He suggested $20,000. And $20,000 is obviously a ton of money to me. The amount of money that I have at this point was like more than I had ever even conceived of having. And so the idea that I would have to invest $20,000 just like, made me wanna puke, really. But he was like, "This is a good amount. Like, realistically, if you wanted to put a 20 percent down payment on a home, like, that's not necessarily even going to be that, depending on what you're buying and stuff. So you want this money to grow. If I take $20,000 for the investment account, then you're still going to have money for your personal expenses and business expenses to at least float you a couple months, few months. And then, you know, at any point,” this is what he just kept emphasizing to me, "At any point, in the event of an emergency, you can withdraw these funds." He was like, "You just have to wire it over, and here is my information." Whenever I think of wiring, I just think of like, those emails that you get where they're like, "Hi! I am looking for funds to support this poor family. Wire money to this location!" So like, immediately when he says “wire funds,” that's my only context for understanding wiring. So I'm like, "Oh, that's weird." But again, not suspecting anything negative about him. I was just like, "That's how you do it? OK. That's so wild." 


Nora McInerny: So Celisia wires the money, but then the next day…  


Celisia Stanton: He responds to me, and he was like, "Hey, Celisia. I didn't see the funds come through. I just wanted to check in on this.” And I go back to my bank, and I check, and the wire had been reversed on suspicion of fraud. And I was like, "Oh, that is really odd." So I called the bank, and they were like, "We only allow wires from your account to either another account that you own or to a title company." 


Nora McInerny: So, Celisia lets Isaiah know this, that she basically got a fraud alert. How do you think he responds to that?

Marcel Malekebu: Oh yeah. I mean, you know, "That kind of thing happens all the time. Don't worry about it."

Nora McInerny: Ding, ding, ding. Exactly. 


Celisia Stanton: And then he says, "It's wild. You know, there's been such a rise in fraud recently that it is such a good thing that there is these protections in place, you know, to protect you." And he's like, "You know, we're going to have to come up with a different solution. But like, I'm glad that these things exist to protect people from fraud." And then I'm thinking, "Wow. How awesome is it that I have this financial adviser who like, really, actually like, genuinely seems to care about me and wants the best for me?"


Nora McInerny: So at this point, Celisia and Isaiah are meeting biweekly. They're talking about her financial future. They're making vision boards. And they're talking about making another asset transfer. He brings this up multiple times. But Celisia is busy. I can avoid a task that takes two minutes. I can avoid it for weeks, Marcel, as you know. [laughs]

Marcel Malekebu: [laughs] Right.

Nora McInerny: And so does Celisia, until... 


Celisia Stanton: Eventually he emails me and he says, "Hey, Celisia, how about we initiate the ACH transfer from my side?" So I didn't really know what that meant, but basically, he was like, "I can just do it. If you just give me some information, I can do the transfer." So we hop on a phone. He asked me for my bank account number and my routing number. And he's like, "Great! All right. I'm going to get these funds transferred over and then we're all set." And then I get an email, which says, "We got your funds."


Marcel Malekebu: So he uses something called Right Capital, which is basically this platform for independent financial planners.

Nora McInerny: Yeah. I went to the website, and this is such a software description: "Our innovative financial planning solution helps financial advisors grow their business. Differentiate your services with intuitive financial and tax planning.” Like ... it's a website platform for them, right? So you don't have to build your own platform to show people like, how your banking works. The website stresses that it is basically about making things easy for your clients to understand.

Marcel Malekebu: Yeah. So you can log in, you see your money, see the plan. All that. I mean, it's all there.


Celisia Stanton: He actually asked me to invest again. So that was like the first of like, two investments that I ended up doing. And part of the thing about this Right Capital system was that because I had hooked up all of my accounts to it, he basically got to see at any point how much money I had on hand. And so on one of our meetings, he goes, "Hey, Celisia, by the way, I notice on Right Capital that you, you know, you have a good amount of funds in your account. I think you should make another investment." And this time it's $15,000. So now at this point, this puts my account funding at $35,000. I was like, "Oh my God, this is scary." And he was like, "In a few years, this is going to be so much more money. You can be so happy to see like you're doing great, like the fact that you're making these steps right now while you're so young is like, so great, so awesome. Like, you should be really proud of yourself."


Nora McInerny: When Reverend Gonzales and Celisia log into their accounts, they're seeing incredible growth. They're seeing 12 percent growth, then 20 percent growth. That's bonkers. Like, all I want in a graph is for it to go up into the right, you know? [laughs]

Marcel Malekebu: Right, right. If I get 3, 4 percent, that's ... I got a savings account with like 2 percent. [laughs]

Nora McInerny: I have a savings account that's .05 percent. I'm like, "Ooh!" [laughs]

Marcel Malekebu: [laughs] Ooh, that 3 dollars this year really helps. 

Nora McInerny: I'll declare it on my taxes. I'm not afraid. OK. Yeah, it's called profit. Look it up. [laughs]

Marcel Malekebu: Right. So like, nine months pass. Reverend Gonzales and his wife had previously taken out a loan to fix up their kitchen. And so, since their money's doing really well, they’re like, “Ya know what? Let’s take out some of that investment money and get rid of the remodel loan.” Which makes sense! So Robin calls Isaiah... 


Reverend Michael Gonzales: And she said, "Hey, you know, want a check for X number of dollars here." And he said, "Yeah, well, you know, let me work on that. And I'll be able to do it and stuff for you." And she went back online, and she started to have problems. And then she said, "I call back. And the first time I call, the guy said, 'Oh yeah, you know, I'm a check and get it all out.' Now, second time, said nobody answered the phone." So we was like, "Oh, no. This is not good." 

Reverend Michael Gonzales: I went down there to his office and stuff, and so …  he was no longer there, but he had already said, "Well, I'm going to move into a larger space." So that was one of the things, was we said, "Well, is he moving into a larger space, and his phone system, you know, it's not working," or whatever that might be. But he was no longer there.

Marcel Malekebu: What is going through your mind when you go down there? He's not there. You don't know where he is. Like, maybe that day when you're driving back home, like, what's going through your mind? 

Reverend Michael Gonzales: What's going through my mind? That, uh, sinking feeling, that feeling of, “This is not really happening. I know that he's going to call us and is going to be there and everything is going to be OK.” And you know, I'm taking deep breaths because I know that when I walk in the house, I'm going to have to be strong and, you know, and talk with my wife about this. 


Marcel Malekebu: I'm hearing him say this, and I'm imagining myself like, talking to my wife, talking to my family, a friend of mine, whoever -- and bringing them an idea to say, "Hey, let's make some extra money. Let's invest this properly." And then this happens. And thinking about how much guilt and how sick to my stomach I would be feeling at that time.

Nora McInerny: You're having this conversation with Mr. Gonzales in the home that he and his wife live in. They've given all their money to this man. 

Marcel Malekebu: Yeah, all their money. And she's at work, you know, the entire time that I'm there, which Reverend Gonzales didn't say was fully because of this situation, but in part it was.

Nora McInerny: And the way Celisia finds out, it's not that different. There's a lot of evasion. 


Celisia Stanton: On our last call that we had on Zoom, he says, "Hey, by the way, my app is doing really well, and it's taking up a lot of my time. And so we might have to kind of reschedule some of the meetings that we have coming up. You know, we'll still do everything as planned, but just keep in mind that we might have to be flexible." So I get an email the day before we're supposed to meet the next time. And it was a weird email because it was just a calendar invite, and the note said something like, "Hey. With the success of my app, we're having to pivot, and I'm moving to distance planning." And like, let me tell you, like in a normal circumstance, if I paid somebody $1,500 and they were like, "I'm going to move everything to distance," and like, not even like, tell me that face to face, just send me an email, I would have been pissed off! But because I had felt repeatedly like I had been dropping the ball and he had been so flexible with me, that was just totally not my reaction at all. I was just kind of like, "Oh, OK, cool." And then Thanksgiving happened, so that was kind of my focus. And then the next week after that, it was about midweek, and I realized, “Huh. Odd. I haven't heard from him yet.” So I sent him two emails. Nothing. I don't know where this feeling came from, because I had not had this feeling not even one time. But out of nowhere, I just had this like, thought pop into my head, like, "Huh. What if, like, he stole my money?" And I don't, I literally don't know what made me feel that way, but I was just like, "What if that happened?"

Reverend Michael Gonzales: I knew. I could feel it. I could feel it at that point. I said, "The money's gone." And I kept taking deep breaths. And my wife kept talking to me and said, you know, "We'll check on some more things, and we'll try to see what is happening here." And she said, you know, "Calm down. We are going to be OK." So she basically talked me off of the ledge. I said, "OK. All right."


Nora McInerny: So everything is all right … and then it isn’t. And this is now Celisia and Mr. Gonzales find out that they’ve been scammed. 


Celisia Stanton: I saw this like, really weird thing when I was on his Twitter, which he had tweeted, like, this really ominous message like on that Friday that I had reached out to him. And it was like, "At one of the lowest points and darkest moments in his life, he discovered how he would change the world at 2:20 a.m. on December 2nd.” That's what he wrote. And I was like, that's really odd. And when I read that, I was like, “OK, clearly this man is going through something.” I get a text back from him, finally. And all it says is, "Celisia, I'm sorry to advise you that I have reported myself to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Minnesota Department of Commerce. At the advice of my counsel, I can't comment any more at this time. If you have other questions ..." or whatever, like, "Send anything to my email address, and I'll follow up with it when the time is right." That's how he phrased it.


Marcel Malekebu: So one day, Reverend Gonzales’ wife, Robin, is at work. And she gets called by the FBI. She’s told that they were calling about something to do with Isaiah, but she couldn’t talk for very long. So Robin tells the agent to just swing by the house later and talk to her and Reverend Gonzales.


Reverend Michael Gonzales: The doorbell rang. [doorbell sound] And so Robin says, "Honey, would you come upstairs, please? There's a woman here from the FBI." So I come up. And I said, "OK, what's going on?" And she says, "Do you know Isaiah Goodman?" I say, "Yeah. That is our finance person." And she said, "Well, he is under investigation." And I say, "Okay..." "Some people have said that there are some irregularities with their money. Have you had any of this?" And we said, “Yeah, yeah, yes we have.” And so she said, "Well, I will be back in touch."

Celisia Stanton: My first reaction was just like, numbness, shock. Because at this point, I had already all but confirmed it to myself. I just, this was like the final confirmation. But I hadn't actually let myself fully believe that that could be true. Also, I didn't want to call the police, in any capacity! I had no interest in doing that, because I’m like, very opposed to the prison-industrial complex and all of its elements. And calling the police is something that I just feel like is such a last resort in so many instances where things can be resolved other ways that I just hadn't done it. And so I was like, "Oh my God, do I have to actually call the FBI?" 


Nora McInerny: Celisia actually finds out it’s not the police she needs to call. It’s not the FBI she needs to call, but in fact -- and this is a real plot twist -- the Minnesota Department of Commerce? Okay!


Celisia Stanton: So I call the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The very first woman who answers, she goes, "This guy is under investigation by the Minnesota Department of Commerce,” in her area. She actually happened to be the one on his case. And they had suspended his license because of his investigation. 


Nora McInerny: We'll be right back.


[MIDROLL]


Nora McInerny: OK, so we've talked about the money that was lost — the money that was lost by Mr. Gonzales, the money that was lost by Celisia, the money that was lost by how many other clients?

Marcel Malekebu: At least 23.

Nora McInerny: At least 23. What we haven't talked about is what the money was spent on. Well, according to some court documents, this is where their money went. Twenty-three different victims slash clients were defrauded of at least $2.2 million. And it was spent on:

A $76,000 payment for the purchase of a house in Maple Grove, Minnesota. That’s a suburb of Minneapolis. Around $58,000 to a remodeling company for improvements on that house. And $13,798 dollars — let’s round up and call it $14,000 — for the purchase of a hot tub. Look, I love sitting in my own soup as much as the next person, but that feels excessive.

Then, there was another house. He put down payments of about $91,000 for the purchase and construction of a $1.69 million house in Plymouth, Minnesota. 

Cars, vehicles, $49,500 if we want to be exact, for a 2019 Ford Expedition. And then, a few months later, $12,000 down on a 2020 Ford Explorer. 

And then, there was his business, MoneyVerbs. It looks like between July 2019 and October 2020, there was $439,000 spent to a consulting company. I need to get into consulting, FYI. And then $147,000 to additional parties for services rendered to that business, and payroll in the approximate amount of $109,000. 

And ooooh! Personal expenditures, including $12,000 on a cruise line, $8,300 to a gym — which honestly is just not that … I mean, it’s bad that it was stolen money, and $8,300 sounds like a lot at a gym but when it’s a family membership, you use it everyday ... why am I justifying this? I have no idea. $114,000 for various online and retail purchases — holy crap — including $4,516 to Tiffany and Company and $11,000 to Best Buy. And approximately $195,000 to pay his various credit cards, debts and loans.

So when we are going through that, what we're seeing is truly ... that's not just any money. That money, especially, I would say, the money that was spent in 2019 and 2020 belonged to people. And one of those people was Mr. Gonzales, who is not living in a $1.69 million house.

Marcel Malekebu: Yeah, I mean, like, you gotta put it in perspective. He's at the end of his career. He's a pastor. He's not making millions of dollars or anything like that. His wife is 63 years old. His sister-in-law needs continuous care in a care facility. And at this point, the impact is that her care is going to have to decline because they had this really exemplary care that she was receiving at the first memory care facility. And now they don't have that kind of money anymore. And so she has to be moved to a considerably less exemplary facility. They have barely any money left for retirement, and most of their 401ks are gone.


Reverend Michael Gonzales: See, this impacts the whole community. As Black people, we're moving into realms where we're starting to have some finances now, and we want to be able to do the best thing that we can with them. And we are looking for people that are able to help us out and to make things grow. People were listening to him, and they wanted this kind of advice to be able to help them out. And now I am reading in my local news out here, you know, in Maple Grove and everything, that says that this man is now being indicted for embezzling $2.2 million. So now, the whole community, all of our trust factor is now gone. It is making it harder for the other people that are out there that are really doing good work and trying to help people and do all of those things, now, how do I trust you? See? You've impacted all of these folks now that are really wanting to do the right thing. You’ve beat them down. It's that, "Oooh, I don't know if I want to go with that particular person or not." Now, Robin has always worked, and she loves working, but she's at that point where she wants to work when she want to work. But now that is not the same. She just started a full-time job.


Nora McInerny: Oh, man. That's really, like, that's very hard to hear.

Marcel Malekebu: Yeah, I mean, that's super hard to hear. You know, a lot of times we say things like, "If that were my family member,” but even without this being a family member, you know, sitting down with someone and hearing this kind of story and seeing the kind of man that Reverend Gonzales is — he's a really decent, warm person, and his wife is equally as warm. And so to think about the fact that she feels the need to go back and work a full-time job when they should be, you know, chilling on a beach somewhere or, you know, he should be able to hang out with his family with no concern about whether or not he's going to be able to continue to eat and maintain his home.

Nora McInerny: And his sister-in-law should have the care that she saved for. [Marcel: Right.] You know, he talked so much about the impact on the community and he really, you know, plays down the impact on himself, when the impact on himself and his family is astronomical. And the difference is too, like, Isaiah's pretending to be working in service of a community, and Mr. Gonzales spent his entire career serving small communities. And it sucks for Celisia to lose $35,000. I, at her age, did not have $35,000 to my name. No way, no how. But it's also a very, very different loss.

Nora McInerny: One of the people Celisia is in contact with over the course of the investigation is a local police officer from a task force that handles cases of financial crimes in Minnesota.


Celisia Stanton: She asked, "If you were to not get this money back, what would that mean for you?" And then I am like, silent, because I'm trying to even process what this question means. And then she kind of adds some additional context of like, you know, like, "What would this mean for your life? For your business? For your future? For your family?" Which, I'm like, okay, logical question, and I go to try to answer in logical brain. But all of a sudden I am like, crying. And now I am like, acutely aware of the fact that I am crying on the phone with a police officer, and this man has stolen my money. And so this is like, the first time where I'm sort of forced to actually think about this as like, a real thing, and the reality. And so I basically am like, "This was my whole life savings." It really represented everything that I had planned to do with my life.” And I, and I really did all of this feeling like I was doing the right thing, like doing all of the right things and ultimately, like, not only is this all of my savings, but I only have like, a few months’ worth of money now, to get me by a little bit of time during a time that is slow season. So like, that's just not a good situation for my day-to-day life, either. 


Nora McInerny: We’ll be right back.


[MIDROLL 2]


Nora McInerny: Celisia’s had her entire life savings -- $35,000 -- wiped out. Stolen by a financial adviser who was supposed to be helping her invest for her future. And it’s complicated for her, because she does want justice … but what is justice?


Celisia Stanton: This system is actually focused on punishment. It's focused on retribution, which is so the opposite of healing, especially in the ways that we see it show up in the U.S. criminal justice system. Because it is so racialized and gendered and like, it has all of these oppressive elements to it that create way more harm. I feel like I want him to pay for what he did. I don't care if he, like, rots in jail. And then at the same time, I was thinking like, “Okay, but I still want to be somebody who believes in this idea of abolition.” Because abolition isn't even just about getting rid of these systems. It's not just about getting rid of like, the police or prisons. It’s about creating an entirely new world. It's believing in a society that can actually support people's needs. And if we were to actually try something different, like, maybe we could just see what would happen. If we know for sure that this isn't working, like, why wouldn't we want to try something different? And so I knew I still like, wanted to believe in that, because it's not like I abandoned that. I still felt like there's so much supports that people need. Prisons still doesn't help people. All of that. And at the same time simultaneously being like, “Yeah, but this man can rot in prison.” So I'm like, okay, so that’s some dissonance! I have to kind of compartmentalize those beliefs in order to have them simultaneously. And so I was kind of thinking like, “Since this has happened, so many good things have happened to me,” not so much so that I'm like, “I'm glad that this happened. I would do it again.” I was thinking about all of those things like, you know, the fact that my family and friends have been so supportive. The fact that communities online have been so supportive and even, like, sent me monetary contributions and like, you know, mutual aid. Even just getting to talk to you for this episode, things like that. All of those things that are positive, none of them came from the government. None of them came from this system that I'm a part of right now. And yet the system I'm part of right now is supposed to be the thing that's supposed to be helping me. 

Nora McInerny: Yeah, none of these have anything to do with his punishment. They exist independent of it. 

Celisia Stanton: Yeah! And and and not even just about his punishment. It was like, they didn't even facilitate any of this. Literally, the FBI sent me a pamphlet in the mail. And it is so ridiculous. It is a pamphlet for victims of crime. And on the back, they have a list of their tips for how to deal with crime. And I think the first one is literally, “Make a list of all of the responsibilities that you have and see which ones you can cross off for the time being.” I'm like, okay … that's what you have to offer me? Like ... this is my option? And I'm like, in a position where I have a really good support system and things like that. But I'm like, with all of the money and influence and power that the government has, does our government — who supposedly cares so much about victims — feel like it should maybe provide a little something more?


Nora McInerny: So, what they can offer is what exists within this system which is … prosecution and a trial. Or in this case, a sentencing, which took place in June 2021. I got a text from Celisia saying the sentencing is happening. I was on summer break. I was on a road trip. I happened to be in Minnesota, but I was quote unquote “not working.” LOL, yes I was. But I did not bring my recording kit, so unfortunately, here is some bad audio I recorded on my phone.



Nora McInerny: OK. It's June 29th. I'm standing outside the federal courthouse. Isaiah is going to be sentenced today. I got here early. It's a damp day here in Minneapolis. It is damp. It rained last night. The streets are wet. And today's the day. Celisia! Hi! Today's the day.

Celisia Stanton: Hi! Yeah, I know. Oh, my goodness. How are you?

Nora McInerny: I just, I didn't bring a kit, so I'm just recording on a, on a phone like a real professional. Like a public radio professional.


Nora McInerny: So, Marcel, you and I are both at the sentencing, but you slipped in a little later. You're sitting at the back. I remember turning around and like, we were both wearing masks, and we're trying to communicate everything with our eyeballs.

Marcel Malekebu: It was a heavy room. I didn't realize exactly who I was sitting next to. I haven't been in a bunch of court proceedings, like yourself, so I didn't know that, you know, the two different sides were like victims or whatever on one side. And so I was surrounded by people that had been victimized by Isaiah. 

Nora McInerny: His side of the courtroom was really sparse. It was awkwardly sparse. 

Marcel Malekebu: There weren't a lot of people. And, you know, it looked like his family. And you know, one thing like, in terms of energy, it was like, I didn't think that his family was much different than the victims' side. Like, everybody in there had a little bit of anxiety, frustration, anger and not being sure about what the outcome was going to be. 

Nora McInerny: Yeah, it was a very strange atmosphere. This is also my first federal sentencing, and the sentencing was a lot. He ended up being sentenced to seven years. His attorney was asking for virtual prison time. 

Marcel Malekebu: Yeah, yeah. Naw, naw man.

Nora McInerny: Yeah. He was asking for virtual prison time over five years, so that he could work. And their reasoning was basically like, “Well, the faster he gets back to work,” not in financial advising or financial planning, which he will never be able to do again — he'll never again be able to invest someone else's money — but, “the faster he gets back to any kind of work, the faster he'll be able to pay people back.” But he was sentenced to seven years in a federal corrections facility. So the sentencing ends. We sit with Celisia in this corner of the courtroom and, again, recorded the conversation on my phone, so it is not the greatest sound quality! 


Celisia Stanton: It was much longer than I thought it was going to be. But each side got to kind of make their case about what sentence is deserved or correct. And to me, it was interesting that the judge said at the end, like, “I can't repair the harm that's been done to the victims, but you know, I can serve justice." And I thought that was sort of like interesting, because I was like, "What exactly ... what are we getting out of this?" I feel like it really came through the whole sentencing, the primary thing everyone was concerned with was, "I want my money back. I want my dreams, my aspirations back." And literally the sentence was like, "Here's how you're not going to get that." And I think there's that feeling of like, "Yes, retribution!" but like, that doesn't last. 

Reverend Michael Gonzales: Robin said it wasn't long enough. I tend to agree with that, from the one side of it — you know, looking at it. The other side of it, though, is I tell people all the time that there are things that are worse than death. So he is now in a place where he has some twins that will basically have no recollection of their father. You know, I'm not sure of how, you know, the visitation and everything will work, but they'll just see him in a room. And his older children will do the same thing. And his wife will do the same thing. So now ... if I was going to ask him one question, I would ask him, "Was it worth it?”

Celisia Stanton: The devastation of like, his actions and then our criminal justice system, criminal legal system, it just like, ripples out so far beyond just like, you know, what you immediately think of. These big impacts to victims, and then it's also like, there's all these other things. And these impacts are really long and ongoing. And that's like, the other thing too is like, people think of financial crimes as nonviolent, but like ... what is, like, how do you define violence? And how is it not violent to like, not be able to pursue the dreams that you've been working on for decades? 

Reverend Michael Gonzales: I remember, you know, Robin asked me if I have forgiven him. And I said yes. I said, "But forgiveness is not for him. Forgiveness is for me." Because if I carry this bitterness and keep going, then how is that going to change the quality of my life? Now, do I have my bad days? Yes! Because imma be perfectly honest with you: I have not been a reverend all my life. No. But the fact is that I have to move on. I have to. Because with me, I have more days behind me than I do in front of me. Even if I live a long life, I have more days behind me than I do in front of me. So what am I going to do with these days in front of me? Am I going to focus on that bitterness and keep that up? Or am I going to try to help someone else to better their life? You could have helped so many people and instead of doing that, you killed us. You stabbed us in the back. And by you stabbing us in the back like that, you know, I think a lot of people that were, you know, going to be jaded. But we looked, you know, there was business owners and everything. There was a Ph.D. So it wasn't just me. And I take it personal. But I say, "But it wasn't just me." It was this whole community of people that were let down by this man wanting to do what I call “dumb stuff.” And he sat in his office and bragged about it! Yeah, you know, "We're going to take this trip,” and he came back and he had pictures and everything, showed it to us. "Oh, hey, you know, that's great." But little did we know that he did it off of our money. That’s one thing: We make money and we do different things, but you can never get your time back. I tell my, you know, grandson, talk to him a lot, I said, "Grandson, whatever you are out here doing, be careful, because you can never get your time back." 


Nora McInerny: You can never get your time back. This episode, this story, there's so many tentacles to it. I feel like we are still only just kind of scratching the surface of it. [Marcel: Yeah.] This is our last episode for a while, but I do have a call to action for our listeners, and it's kind of an unusual one. This is not something that we've done before, and I doubt we'll ever do it again. The story of Mr. Gonzales really affected us. The story of Mr. Gonzales is ... it's tough to listen to. I'm sure it's even tougher to live through. Celisia, who you've heard from, she's also a victim of Isaiah, actually set up a GoFundMe for Mr. Gonzales, for his wife, for his sister-in-law to get back that money — the money that the government is hoping to sort of squeeze from a stone in the coming years after he gets out of prison in seven years. Mr. Gonzales, seven years is a long time at the end of your life. I want to get him his money back, or I want to do the best we can. And I did a little mental math, Marcel. And if everybody who listens to this episode gave $2, he would have all his money back. So that's my hope for this episode, is that our community can show up and do our best to make this right. I don't know. Does this sound corny? Does this sound stupid? Am I saying this correctly? 

Marcel Malekebu: No, it sounds- it sounds good. You know, if anyone who has any extra money or can forfeit, you know, half of a latte, it'd be helpful. I mean, it's not corny. What's corny is — and more than corny — what's corny, evil, sick is stealing money from a bunch of people that put their trust in you, especially elderly people or people of color that are, you know, from your same community. That's what's corny. 

Nora McInerny: So we're going to do it. I'm going to get it started. So we'll link to the GoFundMe in our bio. We'll post it online. I'm going to make a contribution. My family's going to make a contribution. And that's our hope for this episode. There will be more about this story on TTFA Premium in the coming weeks. We are going on a little bit of a break for a few weeks, but we are still digging. We're still talking to a bunch of people. And ... we talked to Isaiah. 


Isaiah Goodman: I felt like on one side, I had these like, these issues that I was trying to deal with. And on the other side, you know, I was trying to make up for it with optimism, with charisma, but just kind of longing to be successful. And so eventually, we know, you know, at a fault line, they're going to give and there's going to be an earthquake. And I think once I started lying to myself, that's when it just became inevitable. I kept going deeper and deeper down, down the wrong path.


This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” Our team is me, Nora McInerny, Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Jordan Turgeon and, sometimes, Megan Palmer.

“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a production of APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman. Executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, and Joanne Griffith.