White-Collar Offenders Struggle To Understand Their Crimes

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When Harvard business school Prof. Eugene Soltes set out to discover what motivated white-collar criminals, he unearthed something telling and troubling about self-perception, says the Washington Post in a book review. For his book, “Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal,” Soltes spent years trading letters and phone calls with dozens of former business executives turned convicts, including Ponzi-scheme legend Bernard Madoff; the former chief financial officer of Enron, Andrew Fastow, and the former chief executive of Tyco International, Dennis Kozlowski. In many cases, Soltes finds, the perpetrators struggle to understand their wrongdoing even after spending years in prison. After all, they hadn’t murdered or robbed anyone, and their victims were not in front of them. “None of the former executives I spoke with saw himself as a fraud,” Soltes writes. “Some, of course, clearly recognized that they had committed a crime, but the person they saw in the mirror was successful, entrepreneurial, and ambitious.”

The former executives said they were largely driven by their instincts and didn’t see the criminality of their actions. Some of the men appear stunned that their actions were in fact criminal. Madoff is the most irredeemable and most difficult to understand. For five years, Soltes corresponded with Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence for bilking billions of dollars from investors. At no time did Madoff express remorse; he dismissed the financial distress of his victims as overblown. “It’s not like going into a bank with a gun and saying ‘give me your money’ and running out. All I did was make rich people richer and I made some rich people poorer, but not poor. . . . When I was generating all these profits, a lot of these clients were throwing caution to the wind,” Soltes quotes Madoff as saying.

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