Recent multibillion-dollar fines for big companies put white collar crime in the spotlight. Companies like Purdue Pharma and Goldman Sachs are writing big checks for malfeasance before the beginning of a new presidential term.
Recently, landmark cases against Purdue Pharma and Goldman Sachs have resulted in multibillion-dollar fines for the companies. Although white collar crime has been on the decline in the last 10 years overall, these lawsuits have raised eyebrows nationwide.
The Great Courses spoke with Randall Eliason, J.D., Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School, to unravel what white collar crime is, and why it matters.
The Point of a Pen
Professor Eliason provided a definition of what white collar crimes are.
“[White collar crimes are] nonviolent crimes that primarily use deceit, deception, or fraud to obtain money or property from the victim or to conceal or cover up other misconduct,” he said. “They use deception or stealth as opposed to violence or force. The classic example is a fraud case—you’re getting money by deceiving someone. Some say a white collar criminal steals at the point of a pen rather than the point of a gun.”
Additionally, Professor Eliason was quick to point out that the term “white collar crime” is often mistaken as referring to the category of offender—a business executive or Wall Street tycoon. In fact, white collar crime refers to the category of crime, like fraud or tax evasion.
But Was It a Crime?
Professor Eliason said that with other crimes, it’s almost always clear that the crime has occurred—there’s an empty bank vault, a murder victim, and so on—and the identity of the offender must be determined. White collar criminal investigations are almost the opposite. They begin with knowing who the possible offender is, but then courts must determine whether an actual crime has taken place.
“One of the things I tell my students on the first day of class is, there are a lot of things in the world that go on that are sleazy, immoral, unethical, wrong, but are not criminal, and criminal law is not meant to be the remedy for every kind of bad conduct,” he said. “There’s a lot of bad stuff that goes on that can’t be prosecuted, and shouldn’t be prosecuted [because it] doesn’t actually violate the criminal law, but that’s not the same as saying it’s okay.”
This distinction may frustrate the public, because we often equate “wrong” with “illegal.” However, that’s one of the reasons that it’s so important for us to understand what white collar crime is.
Courses That Matter
Recently, Professor Eliason released a series about white collar crime, titled White Collar Criminal Law Explained, with The Great Courses.
Producer Alisha Reay said that for her, one of the most surprising parts of producing White Collar Criminal Law Explained was learning the distinction of what white collar crime is and how it’s investigated, echoing Professor Eliason’s sentiments about it.
“In a typical normal crime, you have a crime scene where you know what happened and you’re investigating the how and who,” she said. “In white collar, you know the who, but the investigation is to find out what—and if it was done.”
She said the series was similar to other courses she’s produced in that it was “a great speaker talking about complex subjects and breaking them down to help us understand them,” she said. “How this was different was the professor used his extensive experience and interest in the topic to sprinkle in interesting cases and decisions that really brought [the topics] to life.”
Reay said she hopes viewers of the course will come to a deeper understanding of what both white collar crime and some news media buzzwords surrounding it are. This passion explains why so much work and care goes into producing a series for The Great Courses.
“It takes about seven days to shoot a 24-lecture course,” Reay said. “The way it breaks down is about four lectures a day, with one day set aside for audio pick-ups, fixes, and promotional material.” She added that a typical day is one session of about 4.5 hours, either in the morning or the afternoon.
Professor Randall D. Eliason contributed to this article. Professor Eliason is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He received his J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School and spent 12 years as an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.