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 Montpelier Magazine

Long before Enron and WorldCom, Cumming had already discovered how to pick a white-collar criminal out of a lineup.

Watch out, Enron

From shy freshman to powerhouse prosecutor: Isabel Mercedes Cumming ('84)

If you went to JMU during the early 1980s, chances are you remember Isabel Mercedes Cumming ('84). She caused quite a stir with her food-waste survey, which resulted in a "seconds" policy in Gibbons Hall (known as D-Hall). She served in the Student Government Association as a freshman and worked her way up through the ranks, being elected president her senior year.

Although her D-Hall efforts might have gone unappreciated by JMU at that moment in their relationship, she and the university have done right by each other.

Cumming credits her JMU days for transforming her from a quiet freshman into the voracious powerhouse she is today. Wielding both an M.B.A. and a law degree, Cumming ferrets out corruption, fraud and abuse as one of four prosecutors under unit chief Elizabeth Ritter in the Economic Crimes Unit in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office.

"There is a lot of crime in Baltimore," Cumming says. "We had 300 homicides in one year. There are 200 associate state's attorneys in Baltimore City trying 20,000 cases a year."

And Cumming prosecutes her fair share of the caseload -- with a vengeance. She has 20 open investigations now pending and 15 to 20 cases that have been indicted and are ready for trial.

Long before Enron and WorldCom CEOs and CFOs raised the country's ire, flushed stock values and caused mass layoffs, Cumming had already discovered how to pick a white-collar criminal out of a lineup.

"It's the last person in the world you would suspect," Cumming says. "It's the beloved, trusted employee who never took a vacation. They never miss a day of work because they're trying to keep the fraud going."

While average people are disgusted with such corporate malfeasance, they can take some satisfaction in the menace Isabel Cumming aims at it. She has no sympathy for these raiders, whether milque-toast malefactors who drain a tiny town's entire annual budget or dashing executives who wreck international corporations.

"Most of these people come from privileged backgrounds and feel they are entitled to things. It all comes down to greed. People have no idea what greed breeds."

Cumming comes from a hardworking family and has no tolerance for those who try to get ahead via dishonest means. She grew up in Towson, Md., in a house 10 doors down from where she, her husband and two children live today. Her parents still live in that house. Cumming's father is from Canada, and her mother is from San Juan, Puerto Rico. They met when her Dad was in the Navy and had a port call in Puerto Rico. They have been married 44 years.

"My mother was from a more privileged background, but my father was from a working-class family. My siblings and I all went to public schools and have all worked very hard. I paid for graduate school and for law school and had $10,000 in student loans from JMU."

Cumming majored in accounting at JMU, then went to work at Peat Marwick as an auditor during the savings and loan crisis. Two years later, she joined American National Bank as director of internal auditing. She got her M.B.A. from the University of Baltimore in 1989 and became a certified fraud examiner. She did not, however, pass the CPA exam. "I passed auditing and law, so this must be what I was meant to do," she says.

After completing her master's, Cumming went on to get a law degree. She then spent a year as a law clerk at the U.S. Attorney's Office, then moved on to the state special prosecutor's office, where she worked on several bank fraud cases. "A well-known one around here involved former city comptroller Jacqueline McLean," Cumming says. "She made up a fictitious employee and used the money to buy herself luxury items like things from Victoria's Secret."

This is just the sort of fraud that Cumming loves to go after. She revels in amassing a case against such a criminal. "If I have a copy of a check deposited into your account, you are going to lose," Cumming says. "It is hard to go up against documents, so a lot of cases plead out." This prosecutor has more than one cancelled check for any given case, however. If a case goes to court, she arrives with notebooks full of documentation.

Cumming handles all kinds of white-collar crime, including embezzlement, identity theft, insurance fraud and arson.

Although high-powered fraud cases are now in the news, Cumming's unit chief says white-collar crime has always been with us. "I've been prosecuting politicians, doctors and lawyers for 20 years," Ritter says. "We've had all of the major corporations in town as clients. If the media is more focused on white-collar crime, it's because of WorldCom and other high profile cases. Fraud is definitely a growth industry."

Identity theft is another area that yields big returns for criminals and big headaches for victims. "Credit card offers are often sent to a whole neighborhood at one time," Cumming says. "Criminals pull them out of the trash, keep the name, but change the address to a Post Office box and run the cards up to the limit. If they get 50 cards at $5,000, it's a pretty easy way to make a quarter of a million dollars and disappear."

The smallest case Cumming has prosecuted involved $10,000; the largest case was more than $1 million.

There is no such thing as a typical day for Cumming. She might meet with a high-powered CEO at 9 a.m. and a convicted criminal at 11. These days, they could be the same person. Her day starts around 7:30 a.m., but she usually manages to be home by 4:30 p.m. to spend time with her children.

Cumming and her husband own a "teeny, tiny" beach house in Ocean City with another couple. That is where she likes to get away when there is time. "I also like to go to antique shops and walk around and I like reading true crime stuff. I love losing myself in the movies."

Cumming doesn't find much time for herself, and, though she seldom exercises, she calls herself "ridiculously skinny." She often forgets to eat because she is so busy. The heavy-hitting prosecutor weighs in at 102 pounds.

Cumming was no less busy at JMU. As president of the SGA, she was in charge of a $250,000 budget. "Prior to going to JMU, I was an incredibly shy, quiet person," she says. "My first date in high school was

to the senior prom, and at JMU, I was on the Homecoming court. I remember Dr. [Ronald E.] Carrier called me four days before graduation and asked me to be the commencement speaker. I spoke in front of 23,000 people. I would not be where I am today if it wasn't for JMU. Those were life-changing years."


Story By Sande Snead Fulk ('82)

Photos by Tyler Mallory

Design by Nikki Nargi