Luigi Zingales, a finance professor at the University of Chicago, told me that he wishes his profession spoke more candidly about accountability and impunity. Most of the time, he said, business schools find “every possible way to avoid the moral questions.” He added, “I don’t know of any alum that has been kicked out of the alumni association for immoral behavior. There are trustees of business schools today who have been convicted of bribery and insider trading, and I don’t think people notice or care.” He went on, “People are getting more and more comfortable in the gray area.”
One of the longest-running members of the White Collar Support Group is a lean and taciturn man in his forties named Tom Hardin—or, as he is known with some notoriety in Wall Street circles, Tipper X. Not long after graduating from business school at Wharton, Hardin went to work for a hedge fund in Greenwich. He had much to learn. Almost instantly, he began hearing that some competitors, such as the billionaire Raj Rajaratnam, were suspected of relying on illegal tips from company insiders. (Rajaratnam was later convicted and sentenced to eleven years.) In 2007, after Hardin became a partner at Lanexa Global Management, a hedge fund in New York, he got his own inside tip, a heads-up on an upcoming acquisition, and he traded on the information and beat the market. He repeated similar stunts three times. “I’m, like, I would never get caught if I buy a small amount of stock,” he told me. “This is like dropping a penny in the Grand Canyon.” He went on, “You can say, ‘I’m highly ethical and would never do this.’ But once you’re in the environment, and you feel like everybody else is doing it, and you feel you’re not hurting anybody? It’s very easy to convince yourself.”
One morning in 2008, Hardin was walking out of the dry cleaner’s when two F.B.I. agents approached him. They sat him down in a Wendy’s nearby and told him that they knew about his illegal trades. He had a choice: go to jail or wear a wire. He chose the latter, and became one of the most productive informants in the history of securities fraud. The F.B.I. gave him a tiny recorder disguised as a cell-phone battery, which he slipped into his shirt pocket, to gather evidence in more than twenty criminal cases brought under Operation Perfect Hedge. For a year and a half, his identity was disguised in court documents as Tipper X, fuelling a mystery around what the Times called “the secret witness at the center of the biggest insider-trading case in a generation.”
In December, 2009, Hardin pleaded guilty, and his identity was revealed in court filings. He had avoided prison but become a felon, which made features of a normal life all but impossible, from opening a brokerage account to coaching his daughters’ soccer team. He was unsure how he could earn a living. “I would ask my attorney, ‘Are there any past clients you can connect me with who’ve got to the other side of this and are back on their feet?’ He was, like, ‘Sorry, not really.’ ”
He heard of Grant’s group through a friend. “I had no idea something like this existed,” Hardin said. “Jeff was the first one who said, ‘Hey, here’s a group of people just in our situation. Come every Monday.’ ” In 2016, the F.B.I. called him again—this time, to invite him to brief a class of freshman federal agents. Hardin’s lecture at the F.B.I. led to more speeches—first for free, and eventually for a living. He was back on Wall Street, as a teller of cautionary tales. It was not quite motivational speaking; his niche, as he put it, dryly, was “overcoming self-inflicted career decimation.”
In his dealings with his peers, Hardin has learned to distinguish who is genuinely remorseful from who is not. “I’ll hear from white-collar felons who tell me, ‘I made a mistake,’ ” he told me. “I’ll say, ‘A mistake is something we do without intention. A bad decision was made intentionally.’ If you’re classifying your bad decisions as mistakes, you’re not accepting responsibility.”
In the era of rising discontent over injustice, some Americans accused of white-collar crimes have sought to identify with the movement to curb incarceration and prosecutorial misconduct. So far, the spirit of redemption has not extended to the members of the White Collar Support Group, whose crimes relate to some of the very abuses of power that inspire demands for greater accountability. For the moment, they are caught between competing furies, so they rely, more than ever, on one another. “A white-collar advocate still doesn’t have a seat at the table of the larger criminal-justice conversation,” Grant told me. “We exist because there’s no place else for us to go.”
The group members’ predicament rests on an unavoidable hypocrisy: after conducting themselves with little concern for the public, they find themselves appealing to the public for mercy. Baroni, the former Port Authority executive, told me, “I can’t go back. All I can do now is to take the experiences that I’ve had and try and help people.” His regrets extend beyond his scandal. He had been a New Jersey state senator, and, he said, “I voted to increase mandatory minimum sentencing. I never would have done that had I had the experience of being in prison.”
Baroni recently helped establish a nonprofit called the Prison Visitation Fund, which, if it can raise money, promises to pay travel expenses for family members who can’t afford to travel. His partner, and first funder, in the endeavor is a former lawyer named Gordon Caplan, who is one of fifty-seven defendants in the college-admissions scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues. Caplan was a co-chairman of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher until 2019, when he was indicted for paying seventy-five thousand dollars for a test proctor to fix his daughter’s A.C.T. exam. “To be honest,” Caplan said, on an F.B.I. recording at the time, “I’m not worried about the moral issue here.” He pleaded guilty and was sent to a federal prison camp in Loretto, Pennsylvania, a minimum-security facility that houses low-risk offenders with less than ten years left on their sentences.
Caplan was one of America’s most prominent lawyers, but he never paid much attention to complaints about the criminal-justice system until he was in the maw of it. “What I saw is other people going through a system that’s built for failure, built for recidivism,” he told me recently. Caplan had presumed that incarcerated people had reasonable access to job training and reading materials. He was wrong. “The only courses that were offered were how to become a certified physical trainer and automotive repair.” Inmates could create their own classes, and Caplan taught a short course on basic business literacy. “I had fifteen to twenty guys every class,” he said. “ ‘Do I set up an L.L.C. versus a corporation?’ ‘Should I borrow money or should I get people to invest in equity?’ ” Since getting out, Caplan has been alarmed by the barriers that prevent even nonviolent felons from rebuilding a life. “I have assets and I have family and I’ve got all that. But how does a guy who came out for dealing marijuana even start a painting business?”
Hearing Caplan, Grant, and others talk about their sudden understanding of America’s penal system put me in mind of the work of Bryan Stevenson, a leading civil-rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which advocates for criminal-justice reform. He beseeches people to “get proximate”—to step outside the confines of their experience. Stevenson often quotes his grandmother, the daughter of enslaved people, who went on to raise nine children. “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan,” she told him. “You have to get close.”
But getting close is not the same as staying close. After serving twenty-eight days in prison, Caplan returned to Greenwich, where he lives in a seven-million-dollar Colonial, down the hill from the old Helmsley estate. For all his recent concern about the failings of criminal justice, I suspected that the country might have more to learn from him about his own failings. What, I asked, possessed him to pay someone to falsify his kid’s college-admissions test results? He was not eager to answer. “Achievement, I think, is like a drug,” he said, after a pause. “Once you achieve one thing, you need to achieve the next thing. And, when you’re surrounded by people that are doing that, it becomes self-reinforcing. When you also have insecurities, which a lot of highly motivated people do, you’re more apt to do what is necessary to achieve. And it’s easy to step off the line.” Caplan convinced himself that paying to change his daughter’s test results was scarcely more objectionable than other forms of influence and leverage that get kids into school. “I saw what I believed to be a very corrupt system, and I’ve got to play along or I’ll be disadvantaged.”
Greed, of course, is older than the Ten Commandments. But Caplan’s experience illuminated the degree to which greed has been celebrated in America by the past two generations, engineered for lucrative new applications that, in efficiency and effect, are as different from their predecessors as an AR-15 rifle is from a musket. If you have the means, you can hone every edge, from your life expectancy to the amount of taxes you pay and your child’s performance on the A.C.T.s. It’s not hard to insure that the winners keep winning, as long as you don’t get caught.
In the most candid moments on the Zoom call, people acknowledged the damage that their crimes had inflicted on their spouses and children. Seth Williams, a former district attorney of Philadelphia, pleaded guilty in 2017 to accepting gifts in exchange for favors, and served nearly three years in federal prison. Afterward, he struggled to find an apartment that would accept a felon. His first job was stocking shelves overnight at a big-box store; eventually, after an online course, he became a wedding officiant for hire. He was not surprised that former colleagues avoided him, but watching the effects on his family left him in despair. “It affects all of us in how our children are treated at their schools, on the playground,” he said. “Some of our spouses, people want nothing to do with them.”
Not long ago, Grant regained his law license in the State of New York, based largely on his work as a minister and as an expert on preparing for prison and life after. Nineteen years after being disbarred, he rented an office on West Forty-third Street in Manhattan and started practicing again, as a private general counsel and a specialist in “white-collar crisis management.” At seminary, he had studied migrant communities, and he came to see an analogy to people convicted of white-collar crimes. “We have one foot in the old country, one foot in the new,” he told me. If they hoped to thrive again, they would have to depend on one another. “Greek Americans funded each other and opened diners. They lift each other up.” He went on, “The problem we have in the white-collar community is that people who have been prosecuted for white-collar crimes want to become so successful again that they are no longer associated with it. I’ve approached some of the household names, and to a one they’ve rejected it.” I asked him if he was referring to people like Michael Milken and Martha Stewart. Grant demurred. “My mission is to help people relieve their shame, not to shame someone into doing something.”
Grant will tell you that shame does not help in recovery. But America’s record in recent years suggests that, in the nation at large, too little shame attaches to white-collar crime. If the country has begun to appreciate the structural reasons that many of its least advantaged people break the law, it has yet to reckon with the question of why many of its most advantaged do, too. Members of Grant’s group usually come to accept that they got themselves into trouble, but more than a few hope to follow Milken and Stewart back to the club they used to belong to—winners of the American game.
As the Zoom meeting wound down, Grant asked Andy Tezna, the former NASA executive on his way to prison, if there was anything else he wanted to say. “I had a lapse of judgment,” he began, then caught himself and confessed impatience with the language of confession. “I’m so tired of using that word, but, whatever it was that led me to make my mistake, it’s not going to define me for the rest of my life.” He thanked the members of the group for helping him get ready to embark on his “government-mandated retreat.” He’d see them afterward, he said, “once I’m out, a little wiser, a little older, with a few more gray hairs.” ♦