Ex-Facebook, Nike DEI leader sentenced to more than five years in prison

Barbara Furlow-Smiles stole more than $5 million from the companies
Barbara Furlow-Smiles, a former DEI leader at Facebook and Nike, was sentenced to more than five years in prison for stealing more than $5 million from the companies.

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

Barbara Furlow-Smiles, a former DEI leader at Facebook and Nike, was sentenced to more than five years in prison for stealing more than $5 million from the companies.

Barbara Furlow-Smiles, 38, a former leader of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs for Facebook and Nike, was sentenced Monday to more than five years in prison after pleading guilty in December to stealing more than $5 million from her ex-employers.

Furlow-Smiles sat stoically as U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg handed down the sentence. He also ordered her to pay back everything she stole over the six years she ran her schemes, down to the cent — $5,102,838.08.

Before sentencing, Furlow-Smiles addressed the court through tears: “Today, I stand here for the fight of my life.”

Grimberg said he came into the courtroom wondering why someone with such promise had made such bad choices, but realized it boiled down to a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality because of the level of success she had achieved.

Prosecutors had asked the judge to sentence her to six and a half years while her lawyers petitioned for home confinement. After her 63-month prison term, she will be under supervised release for three years.

The scheme

Furlow-Smiles was a lead of employee resource groups and diversity engagement at Facebook from January 2017 until mid-2021. During that time, she had access to company credit cards and could submit purchase requests and approve invoices, which she used to steal millions from Facebook, according to prosecutors.

Furlow-Smiles made fraudulent purchases using Facebook-issued cards and a network of associates to kick back money to herself. She stole more than $4.9 million from the tech giant and used the money to fund a luxury lifestyle in California and Georgia, including paying for specialty portraits and preschool tuition, prosecutors said.

Defense attorneys for Furlow-Smiles said she started her scheme after moving from Atlanta to San Francisco and the family’s cost of living ballooned. She was the breadwinner for her sick husband and their young daughter, her lawyers said, and she also sent money to extended family. The financial oversight at Facebook was lax and Furlow-Smiles took advantage, her lawyers wrote in a sentencing memo acknowledging the wrongdoing of their client but asking the judge for leniency.

In September 2021, she left Facebook. Prosecutors said she was fired, but the defense disputed that. In November 2021, she got a job at Nike as a senior director of DEI and continued the same scheme, fraudulently using her corporate card and submitting false vendor documentation, according to the prosecution. She stole a little over $121,000 during her nearly two years at Nike.

In total, she used 39 fraudulent payees to facilitate her schemes, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve McClain told Grimberg, ranging from former interns to a babysitter.

Last October, the FBI approached Furlow-Smiles about her fraud, according to the defense attorneys’ memo. She started cooperating with the investigation and in December, she pleaded guilty. No one else has been indicted in the scheme, but McClain said the investigation is still ongoing.

During Furlow-Smiles’ sentencing hearing, her grandparents, husband and other family and friends spoke on her behalf, pleading with Grimberg for leniency.

The sentence

“I was so surprised to hear she got in this trouble,” her grandmother, Barbara Roberts, told the court. But she said her granddaughter had a good character. “I hope the court has mercy on her.”

Furlow-Smiles’ husband, Ernest Smiles, gave a tearful and impassioned speech, telling Grimberg he wished he’d said no when his wife first approached him about the job opportunity at Facebook. He said the culture of the workplace is what drove her bad choices, but also laid out what she had achieved while at the tech giant. He also pleaded with the judge to consider their 9-year-old daughter before sentencing.

In her statement to the court, Furlow-Smiles apologized to her victims, outlining the ways she had taken responsibility for her actions and how she had tried to rehabilitate herself through intensive therapy and volunteering with nonprofits over the past few months.

“The totality of who I am is greater than what I’ve done,” Furlow-Smiles said.

And in deciding his sentence, Grimberg agreed, saying she was a good person who made bad choices. But he couldn’t overlook the fact that after leaving Facebook, she didn’t change her behavior, but instead continued it at another company. He also looked at the “sheer numbers of individuals” Furlow-Smiles brought into the scheme to cover up her own involvement and the length of time it continued.

“This was not just a bad day or even a bad month,” Grimberg said.

He also highlighted how her actions have given fodder to critics of DEI initiatives, calling it an “enormous collateral consequence” to the case.

“Furlow-Smiles shamelessly violated her position of trust as a DEI executive at Facebook to steal millions from the company utilizing a scheme involving fraudulent vendors, fake invoices, and cash kickbacks,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan said in a statement. “Her prison sentence reflects the consequences of her decision to orchestrate an intricate scheme to defraud two of her employers for personal profit.”

Grimberg is allowing Furlow-Smiles to receive an undisclosed medical treatment and spend part of the summer and her birthday with her family before reporting to prison.

Furlow-Smiles will not have to surrender until at least July 22. She will be supervised until then and must begin paying restitution.

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