Redemption. One of the definitions of the word is the act of releasing something from blame or debt.

For four convicted white-collar criminals, gathered Thursday night in an extraordinary reunion of those who committed crimes with those who prosecuted them and the judges who sentenced them, redemption is an ongoing journey that includes facing themselves and the gravity of their decisions every day.

But redemption, above all, is possible, they said.

"Whatever mistakes I've made, that doesn't have to define you," said former lawyer Stephen Rondestvedt, who stole money from 28 clients.

Said Nick Ryberg, a former HR executive who with his wife defrauded their former employer of $1 million: "Prison, for both of us, was the biggest blessing in our lives."

In some ways, the stories presented at the University of St. Thomas School of Law are very different. One was an attorney who first stole money from a client's trust account to make a down payment on a new house. Another was a former city administrator who took bribes for years to help businessmen and later carried out fraudulent loans to prop up a business. The third case involved a couple so intoxicated by fancy cars, big houses and big vacations that they created a scheme to charge their employers for phony invoices.

But, as U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen, who sentenced the Rybergs, said, there are some common traits to white-collar criminals: greed, a sense of entitlement and a feeling that what they are doing is justified.

"Then, one day, you make that false statement, you pick somebody's pocket and you've gone too far," Ericksen said.

Justice vs. punishment

U.S. Chief Judge Michael Davis, who sentenced David Logan, a former public official and CEO of a hog operation, to 71 months in prison, seemed uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. He listened to Logan's story of greed and shunning the law, and then his teaching math to other inmates in prison, and then he spoke up. He wasn't going to let Logan off so easily.

"David, when you took a bribe, how much did you take?" he asked. "Was it hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars?"

"Thousands of dollars," said Logan, the former city administrator in Pipestone.

And he did this for more than 10 years in a small, poor community, Davis pointed out.

Then Davis asked Logan how much in fraudulent loans he had acquired over the years for his business -- money he repaid, but still fraud. The answer: $7 million. But, thanks to a robust economy at the time, Davis pointed out that Logan was able to repay his loans. If he hadn't, if he had committed his fraud in the weak economy today, he probably would not have repaid the loans and have received more prison time.

Davis' point: As a criminal defense lawyer and a judge, he's seen offenders who stole less money and hurt fewer people get more time in prison. And many of them, poor and lacking an education, get little opportunity for redemption.

"We have a society that believes in punishment," he said.

If we want to talk about redemption, it has to be about opportunity for redemption for all -- not just the white-collar criminals, not just those offenders society feels kinship with, Davis said.

And if offenders such as Logan really want their shot at redemption, Davis said, they need to also work for those others.

Then Davis asked Logan if he remembered what he said at Logan's sentencing.

"I remember you told me that my obituary would read of all the bad things I have done and not the good things I had done," Logan said.

To which, Davis pointed out just before they embraced, there still is time.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428