Cortes Wesley Randell could have had it all.
For a while there - in the late 1960s when he communted from his Washington mansion to a New York office in his Lear jet - it looked like he would.
Writers profiled him in articles with headlines that read like this one in an airline magazine: "The Rich, Young World of Cortes Randell." He dressed conservatively but elegantly. He was gracious and generous: if a colleague admired the hand-tooled Italian leather valise under his arm, he'd hand it over as a gift.
Randell's charmed world began with a company he formed called National Student Marketing, a firm that had its genesis when Randell was a $12,500-a-year marketing specialist with ITT in the early 1960s.
Company legend had it that Randell arrived at a debutante ball in Newport aboard his former college roommate's yacht only to decide, "I was getting behind." So he wrote a guide to collegiate summer jobs, plastered coupons offering the booklet on Midwest campus bulletin boards and was astounded at the mailorder sales.
Randell quit the ITT job and started a copany that concentrated on the growing, affluent college market. Students working for Randell began distributing advertisements, samples or discount cards for airlines, cosmetic firms and insurance companies to the nation's colleges.
In 1968, when Randell was 33, he guided National Student Marketing to a public offering and saw $6 million worth of stock soar to a value of $450 million in 24 months. NSW had become a glamor stock, with boosters including solid investors such as Morgan Guaranty Trust and the endowment funds of Harvard and Cornell.
But Randell, in his quiet, University of Virginia-educated style, told interviewers, "I don't know quite how it happened that I'm making $1,000,000 a month. I just sit in the office and talk to people."
How it happened, the Securities and Exchange Commission later charged, was that Randell misled investors about the true financial shape of the company. In 1970 NSM stock plunged, and Randell resigned for unexplained reasons. In 1974 he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $40,000 after pleading guilty to stockfraud conspiracy and three other fraud counts. Down the tubes with him went two of the firm's auditors, and NSM became a textbook example of the hot-stock company whose temporary prosperity was a product more of Wall Street's go-go years of the 1960s than of its bottom line financial standing.
After the collapse of NSM (it continued to operate on a much smaller scale without its founder's involvement), Randell got right with God.
"What just simply happened is that all the assets and money and business became a barrier between the Lord and myself . . . (but) He is just so loving and so kind that He'll just keep after you until He gets you," Randell said a few years later on a Christian talk show.
Both Randell and his wife (he took a couple of days off in 1968 to marry) seemed born again, and he told a nationwide TV audience he live in McLean and had "bought control" of a mortgage banking firm with another "Christian brother, truly trying to run the business as God would run a business."
But last year the SEC began investigating Randell's operation of National Commerical Credit Corporation. Randell told the press he played only a minor role in the company, and apparently no one noticed his earlier talk-show boast. No matter. Late last year Randell and three partners were charged by the SEC with "gross corporate mismanagement, selfdealing, the taking of second trust notes and cash valued at several hundred thousand dollars through a series of undisclosed transactions."
Last month Randell, who denies all charges of improper dealings, was indicted by an Alexandria federal grand jury on securities and mail fraud growing out of the 1976 collpase of that real estate investment firm.
As a college student at Ohio University, I worked for Randell as a campus representative. In the summer of 1968 I worked from the Manhattan office at a handsome salary ( $200 a week, plus living expenses and a new car) to recruit other NSM campus reps. I sometimes watched Randell in action: sure, low-keyed, button-down.
Later, as a reporter in Washington, I'd see Randell lunching with lawyers. I asked to interview him. For nearly five years he refused, pleading involvement in legal appeals.
In April 1977 he told me, "I was never the financial genius they said, but I never said I was an angel either, because I'm not." Except for guilty pleadings in court. Randell never publicly came so close to admitting anything.
After he completed serving five months in prison for his NSM involvement, he quickly stumbled into legal problems and politely declined interview requests.
One night a few weeks ago I called his home. Randell was huddled with lawyers. Through his wife, Joan, he said he really wished I wouldn't write anything about him; Joan Randell said newspaper attention made prosecutors blood-thirsty, suggesting they got fat offers from law firms if they were involved with publicized prosecutions.
"If you could just wait a couple of weeks, we think we can show the SEC for what it really is," Joan Randell said.
Prosecutors said Randell cleared $3 million from his NSM years; Randell said the figure was one-third that. Whatever the amount, Randell says it was more a moral than a financial lesson.
"I'd just like to say for people who set their goals on having yachts and jet planes, that God was very gracious to let it happen to me at a very young age because it really doesn't make you happy," he said on the religious talk show. "I used to be a fellow who thought if you just did everything like Madison Avenue, you'd be happy.
"You certainly will not, and I studied the Bible to find out why . . . The answer seemed to be there were three people: body, soul and spirit. All the money will feed your bodily needs, some of your soul's needs, but none of your spiritual needs."