The acclaimed TV series Succession is a comedic drama about a handful of monstrously rich, often monstrous, people fighting over who will succeed the patriarch in running the family business. But is Succession also a crime show? On episode 36 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk with Jennifer Taub, the author of Big Dirty Money: Making White Collar Criminals Pay, about what the show gets right about how society deals with white-collar crime. Daniel D’Addario, the chief television critic at Variety, discusses how the series treats politics—and the money behind the political scenes.
[Clip] The truth is that my father is a malignant presence, a bully, and a liar, and he was fully personally aware of these events for many years, and made efforts to hide and cover up.
Laura Marsh: This, to me, is one of the most dramatic betrayals in recent TV history: a son stabbing his father in the back at a press conference.
Alex Pareene: In the finale of the second season of Succession, a show on HBO, Kendall Roy, one of the main characters, gives that press conference and denounces his father, Logan Roy, the head of a massive right-wing media empire. Kendall basically invites the Justice Department to look into the family business.
Laura: These struggles might look familiar to a lot of viewers: a family headed by a right-wing billionaire who’s been stoking culture wars and poisoning the political landscape for decades.
Alex: In other words, the Roys look a little bit like the Murdochs, or even the Trumps: a powerful, amoral father and competing, sometimes pathetic children who are waiting for him to go away so they can inherit the company.
Laura: When the show first aired, in 2018, one year into the Trump administration, you might think that a lot of audiences wouldn’t have the stomach to follow the antics of a hyperwealthy, ostentatiously callous family through several seasons of wrongdoing.
Alex: But the funny thing is, the more closely Succession resembles our terrible real world, the more people like us want to talk about it. It probably generates more online discussion than any TV show I’ve seen since maybe even Game of Thrones.
Laura: I think that might be because Succession is both a show about the people who wield political influence behind the scenes and a show about crime.
Alex: Season 3 of Succession premiers on October 17. Today, we’re talking about why people like us like to watch people like the Roys and what the show tells us about white-collar crime. I’m Alex Pareene.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Our first guest is Daniel D’Addario, the chief television critic for Variety. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us today.
Daniel D’Addario: Thanks for having me.
Alex: I would imagine that if you’re listening to this, you probably already enjoy the show Succession, but for the sake of anyone who might just be curious, what is this show about?
Daniel: Succession is a drama with heavy comic elements about a family called the Roys. Their aging patriarch is the CEO of a media corporation that he’s built, and his four adult children scrabble over who will be the favorite child to follow most closely in his footsteps. Their fortunes rise and fall. Any similarities to various oligarchic, industrial families, including most especially the Murdochs, have been picked apart since the first season, but the Roys definitely have elements all their own from the mind of the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong.
Alex: That was kind of a fun game early on—sort of spot the reference. But now you’re saying that after three seasons, these characters are more than just the sum of references; they’re compelling and interesting on their own.
Daniel: I would say so. Certainly in this third season, without giving anything away, the ability to draw comparisons, especially in the realm of politics, has grown more robust. It’s a lot easier to see certain things. However, if it were just, “This part is Sumner Redstone’s daughter, and this part is Don Jr.,” it wouldn’t be the success that it is. And I think what keeps us watching is that. They are their own kind of monsters.
Laura: It’s funny because if you go back to the first episode where Logan has had his stroke and the family, outside his hospital room, are deciding what their move is going to be if he dies, the thing that that most reminded me of was not a contemporary media family, but Armando Ianucci’s film The Death of Stalin, where all the nomenklatura are around Stalin going, “Should we try and bring him back to life?” It has this analysis of power on that level, too.
Daniel: It’s fascinating what happens when a dominant power recedes or is beginning to recede, because these four adult children have spent their lives with the climate entirely defined by Logan’s moods (that’s the father). They’ve spent their entire life studying this man. And yet in his senescence, they’re suddenly left without a clue, because he’s so capricious. And also because it’s a frightening situation to suddenly have one’s lodestar removed, right? The comparison to Stalin-era functionaries in a comedy is really apt because he is such a looming figure that they literally can’t imagine the terrain without him, even though they need to figure out their post-Logan futures if they want to have one.
Alex: That’s one of the political parallels in the show that I want to draw here that I feel is less touched upon than one of the more obvious one—there’s an aging person holding onto power. And I think a lot of us have seen that in our real lives and in American politics, and from a sort of metafictional sense, when you watch the beginning of the first season, especially those first few episodes, you think that this is a show about Logan (played by Brian Cox); you think this is a show about him maybe dying, leaving, and the chaos that happens after his departure, but he just sticks around. One of the things that I find really interesting textually about the show is that it’s premised on this idea of him going away, and he just won’t do it. And everything is about him maintaining his hold on power. We all think, “What’s going to happen after Rupert Murdoch?” And he’s not going anywhere, either. He’s still running Fox and The New York Post. Diane Feinstein won’t retire. It’s kind of a show about this cohort of people that can’t release their grip on power.
Daniel: And it becomes impossible even to imagine generational change of the sort that throughout history has been pretty natural and unencumbered. It’s time for the Roy children to do whatever is next in their lives other than taking orders from their father. And yet he seems to be kept alive by the very idea of power, it’s the thing that motivates him. It has some sort of supernatural ability to keep him going.
Laura: What fascinates me about the show is the appetite that people have for this particular telling of a story about a very rich, powerful, power-hungry group of people. Because if you think, over the last couple of years, there have been a lot of shows about very rich people, like The White Lotus, and also about nasty high-powered corporate types, like Billions. And neither of those shows have generated the kind of discourse that Succession has. It has a whole gravitational pull around it where people online can talk about this show for hours. Why do you think that it fascinates journalists, particularly, so much?
Daniel: Succession very successfully embeds within itself both jokes that anyone can get and jokes that feel like special little Easter eggs for folks who are more familiar with the media apparatus and spent time working at media companies. It’s a show about a media company, and they get the details right in a way that, for the recapping class, for lack of a better phrase, is very gratifying. I also think compared to shows like Billions or The White Lotus, Succession very effectively has it both ways. And I don’t think that’s a negative. What I mean by that is that it simultaneously takes a somewhat moralistic view of its characters, it depicts them behaving in bad ways that I think the story understands are not moral or good, and it also shows the characters to be compelling, fun, engaging, roguish creatures whom we sometimes find ourselves rooting for, even though we know their behavior is horrible. Also, some of the characters are explicitly tragic, and we feel for them in ways we don’t feel for the characters on The White Lotus, for instance. I think that, in being a show that is aware of these people’s flaws but also showing their lives to be richly drawn beyond the drama of evil-doing, it allows us both escapist fun and the sense that we, the less wealthy people watching at home, have at least something that they can’t, which is our morality.
Alex: I mean, yeah, at one level it is totally the case that this show is popular with people like me, because I worked for Vaulter, right? Vaulter is the digital media company that they screw up. I was in that room. I’ve been near Kendall Roys. I have not been near to them socially, but I’ve been in physical proximity to them. And this show gets a lot of the details right about how the little people interact with them, even though those little people are always sort of sidelined in the main story. But I think, too, you mentioned the creator, Jesse Armstrong, he’s an English writer, and I think that the show has a sensibility about rich and powerful people that is less impressed than a lot of shows created by Americans—less impressed by the trappings of wealth and more able to see how these wealthy characters can be flawed in these grand and operatic ways, but they can also just be pieces of shit, too.
Daniel: Absolutely. I was recently watching the episode where they visit the old-money family—you could say maybe this universe’s fictional Sulzbergers—and the matriarch of that family, played by Cherry Jones, waits for her servant to finish preparing a roast, picks it up herself, walks it out of the kitchen—and her family applauds her. This is a show that understands why that’s absurd and has the imagination to imagine that almost ludicrous theft of someone’s labor for attention for yourself. And in that moment, she’s being a complete piece of shit, you’re right. And so I think that it’s very attuned to the flaws that we can look at that let us feel, in a very gratifying way, superior to our class superiors.
Alex: That’s a funny episode, too, because as you said, they’re there with the old-money people, and even if you know all the ways the Roys are horrible, you’re like, “Wow, these other rich people are even worse.”
Laura: There are different ways to be an oligarchical monster within the Succession universe. It also seems that the show is kind of remarkable in that it doesn’t give you just one good character—like, one person in this show that you can be like, well, you know, “Cousin Greg is pretty good,” but he’s not. Cousin Greg is just bad at being bad.
Alex: I think that’s the British satirical sensibility there. The question of how we’re supposed to feel about these characters, are we supposed to root for these characters, that’s sort of moot. The characters just are. You can relate to them however you like, this is just how they are.
Daniel: I had a lot of trouble with the first season, before I learned the show’s rhythm. In the first episode, for instance, they play a cruel trick on the child of one of their household laborers and promise him some great sum of money if he can hit a home run in their family baseball game. They’re all adults, he’s a child. They’ve dangled the money in front of him, and he’s never going to win. I watched it and was like, “I understand that I’m not supposed to like these people, but wow, I really don’t.” So why should I care about what they get up to? It took some time to get attuned to the show’s wavelength.
Alex: One of the interesting things about this show is that it’s about a bunch of people who don’t really care about appearing sympathetic.
Daniel: I think one of the most intriguingly drawn characters is Siobhan or Shiv, played by Sarah Snook, because in her mind, she is the protagonist of a show about a heroic daughter. It stretches credibility a bit that in the early seasons, she worked with the campaign of a Bernie Sanders–style figure, a very leftist United States senator. Throughout the show, she’s constantly trying to work the levers of power to pull the company at least toward the political center, if not the left. And it’s kind of a pathetic mission because it’s one that we feel, based on everything we’ve seen, can never succeed, and it raises these questions of complicity. She thinks she’s sympathetic, but even she cannot escape who she is.
Laura: That storyline, with her working for Eavis, this Sanders-style senator, seems to be positioning the show in that Trump moment very squarely. I think, when the first two seasons of this show came out, during the Trump administration, one of the reasons people liked the show so much is that it depicts this Trump-style family—it depicts this Fox News–style media empire, ATN, that they’re presiding over. And then it’s giving you the left opposition to Trump with Eavis. This third season is coming out in a new political climate with a new president. Do you think it still speaks to people’s anxieties in the same way?
Daniel: I think it does, and here’s why. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement on the left after Trump losing the election. We all remember the celebrations in the streets on that Saturday when the election result was called. And yet the Biden era has not thus far solved all of our problems, and it feels more and more like there’s a greater kind of unstoppable system of wealth in this country that overrides whomever is in office. And the Roys are part of this. Without getting into specifics, they are more engaged in electoral politics this season in a way that indicates that, rightly or wrongly, they view their power as greater than that of the U.S. president. And I don’t think they’re wrong to think that. So in a moment when we’ve gone from a newfound awareness of inequality to a kind of fearful sense that inequality is the unbreakable law of the land, no matter who’s in office, I think Succession feels pretty vital.
Laura: It’s interesting—without getting into spoilers, I think season 3 is the first season where they’re on the phone with the president frequently. And I almost feel like the showrunners were willing to go there because it’s not implicitly Trump anymore. They call him “the raisin,” and there’s some ambiguity about whether this is maybe even a Democrat—it’s not clear that he’s on the phone with a Republican.
Daniel: It does feel as though their hands are no longer tied by Trump being the sitting U.S. president, such that they can now more broad-rangingly, and certainly more explicitly, comment on politics. Because for four years, commenting on politics necessarily meant that first and most urgently you had to comment on Trump. Now a show that’s all about the system can really show us that system. And we see ATN’s impact on politics. We see the ways in which ATN’s impact may be waning in the face of the nascent power of YouTubers and social media. So that’s all stuff that I think would have been harder to explicitly depict when it felt as though the first thing the audience would expect would be a capital-C comment on Trump.
Alex: Thank you to the American people for once again electing a fully generic president for the sake of fiction. Once again we have a generic white male president, and our satire can be good again.
Daniel: It does feel like when they’re on the phone with a generic unnamed president, you can imagine it’s Biden. Why not? Whereas Trump has that energy on his own that kind of inherently spoils comedy.
Alex: Daniel, thank you again for spending the time to talk to us today.
Daniel: Thanks, guys. It was a pleasure.
Alex: You can read Daniel’s review of season 3 of Succession at Variety.com.
Laura: After the break, we’ll be back to talk some more about Succession. It’s a satire, but is it also a crime show?
Laura: At the beginning of the show, we heard a son denouncing his father. But what Kendall was also doing was calling for an investigation into the conduct of his family’s business. The Roy family has already been called to testify before the U.S. Senate in the second season of the show. And season 3 is headed into an examination of all the ways that they’ve been carrying out their business—or, to put it more bluntly, all the forms of white-collar crime they’ve been undertaking.
Alex: Succession is not just a show about rich people behaving badly morally or behaving badly interpersonally. It’s also a show about whether the law even applies to them.
Laura: We’re joined now by Jennifer Taub, a lawyer and journalist who writes about financial crime. Hi, Jennifer. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Jennifer Taub: Thank you so much for having me. You gave me an excuse to re–binge watch two seasons of Succession. So, great homework.
Laura: That was basically our thinking around doing this! So we’ve been discussing the show as a satire and as a comedy. We don’t often think of Succession as a show about crime. If you had to convince someone that this is a crime show, how would you go about doing that? What would you say is kind of the first moment where you’re like, that is a crime, this is a crime show?
Jennifer: I think it’s the moment when—I don’t know if he’s delightful or disgusting, but Tom Wambsgans, from the Midwest, the guy who married into the family—he’s so excited to be elevated to run this cruises division, and the outgoing guy says the words, “I need to tell you something”—I can either tell you everything I know, and then you will know it and you will have to deal with it, or I can not tell you some stuff I know, and it may blow up, but, you know, plausible deniability. And when he refers to this mystery as the “death pit,” at that point, you don’t really find out the details, but you see Tom sweating through it, looking into the paperwork, calling his personal lawyer. At that point, you realize there are some deep, dark secrets, it’s probably criminal, and, as we learned from the Watergate adage, sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime. So at that point, I’m like, OK—are they hiding stuff that now is material information the shareholders should know? And if so, does this rise to the criminal level?
Laura: I want to get a sense of the types of different crimes that are being portrayed on the show, because there are these crimes on the cruise ship, which are kind of street-level crimes, really, in that there are assaults, I think there is even some passenger death or the death of a worker on the ship, but then there are these other crimes that someone like me would never even think about, like, not disclosing something to the shareholder of a company. To me that just seems like an oversight. How is that a crime? I’m trying to understand what is white-collar crime and how you recognize it on a TV show.
Jennifer: I love how you say that leaving something out that you don’t tell the shareholders to you seems like an oversight, or maybe something like civil fraud, where you would settle money. So some of this stuff is noncriminal, some is criminal. Let me tell you how not disclosing something to the shareholders could end up being criminal. When you’re a public company, you’re required to put up financial statements every quarter, right? With the [Securities and Exchange Commission], they’re called 10QS. And then you put it in your annual report, which is called a 10K, which gets audited. And in there, you’re trying to give them a fair and full statement of the financial condition of the company: What are your assets, and what are your liabilities? What’s your income, and what are your expenses? If you have a major liability that you’re not disclosing, whether it be a loan that you’ve taken out or, if it’s a major liability because you have potential multimillion-dollar lawsuits that you haven’t disclosed, you haven’t put a number on a liability, which makes your company look like it’s healthier than it is. And so, where this gets into securities fraud under Section 10B of the 1934 Act, for example, is if, let’s say Alex is a shareholder who’s like, “I really think I like the direction of this company.” You read the financial report, you decide to go on your Robin Hood account, you buy 100 shares …
Alex: I read the report, and I’m like, “This is solid, fundamentals seem solid.”
Jennifer: If you purchase a security and you relied on this information, and then a month later the truth comes out about the cruises division, and now the stock falls by 80 percent, and you’ve lost 80 percent of your value, that would be a situation where you might bring a case yourself, civilly. You’re actually required to disclose risk factors. That’s one of the requirements in your quarterly statements. The failure to disclose this risk factor, for example, if they didn’t, and if it was done knowingly and willfully, the SEC might refer it to the Department of Justice for criminal charges. The tricky thing is that it’s always going to be the mental state. That’s exactly why hiding it, and not knowing actually what’s in it—
Alex: Hiding proves that you knew it was bad.
Jennifer: Well, shredding the documents proves someone knew it was bad. But you can’t show how high up the chain it went.
Alex: Ah, right. White-collar crime is interesting because it does seem identity-dependent, right? Like committing a crime while wearing a business suit. Not like if you put on a suit and murder someone, but committing a crime in the course of being white-collar.
Jennifer: Yes, I like where you’re headed. The way you’re talking about white-collar crime is the way the sociologist Edwin Sutherland, who coined the term in 1939, thought of it. He thought of it as status-based, with conduct as a supplement. Ten years after coining the term, Sutherland wrote a book about it. That book, White-Collar Crime, is only about corporate crime, and to be clear, what he meant and what most people mean when they talk about corporate crime is that the corporation itself is the weapon—the CEOs targeting shareholders or consumers or employees. So Sutherland’s definition of a white-collar criminal was somebody of high social status and respectability in his community who commits crimes in the course of his occupation. Again, leading first with status, then going to conduct. Today, lawyers like me, and the tendency generally, even at the FBI, is to think of white-collar crime in terms of conduct—so it’s wire fraud, mail fraud, environmental crimes, securities fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, and so on. And in doing so, we’ve really lost the plot. Sutherland, because he was a sociologist and not a lawyer, wanted to study this phenomenon of white-collar crime. He wanted to count and measure and study the people who got away with it. He made an analogy; he said people who are gangsters and mobsters—you know, we watch The Sopranos, and you call those folks mobsters even if they don’t go to jail. If I said to you, that’s about a mobster, he’s a criminal, no one would say to me, “You can’t say that.”
Alex: No one would dispute that.
Jennifer: No one would say, “You’re going to be sued for defamation.” But if you ever say something like, if you’ve called—and I’m not even going to name a person’s name—if you call this person or that person a white-collar criminal, if they had not been convicted or even charged with anything, the lawyers would be breathing down your neck, and everyone would be like, “You’re not very smart because you are not very nuanced.”
Laura: So it’s as if there’s this class of people that you can almost never call criminal, because they have a kind of protection that just comes from their identity as corporate actors. You talk about this a little bit in your book—you call it the implicit immunity of the upper class.
Jennifer: I was watching one of the episodes in the show where Tom is really happy because he thinks Greg shredded all the documents. You’ve got to love Cousin Greg. What did Logan say? “Everyone has their game, everyone’s protecting themselves.” Greg protects himself by keeping some of the documents. But Tom takes Greg out to dinner, and it’s disgusting—they’re eating these songbirds, it’s just revolting. At this point, you’re like, I wouldn’t want to have that much money, but Tom is still excited to be this wealthy guy, marrying into wealth. And he says,
[Clip] This is the thing about being rich. It’s fucking great.
Jennifer: “It’s like being a superhero, only better.” And this is the line that blew me away: He said, “You get to do what you want. The authorities can’t touch you.” And then he says, “You get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani, and it doesn’t make you look like a prick.” And I’m like, having worked in New York, having been around a lot of wealthy people my lifetime, that rang true—as honestly do all the characters.
Laura: How does implicit immunity work? And we do see examples of that on the show, of their getting away with things because of these little privileges?
Jennifer: I guess there’s no such thing as a spoiler alert here.
Laura: This is a spoiler bonanza.
Jennifer: The scene when Kendall is in the accident, and the guy he’s with dies, and he comes home, and his father just takes care of everything for him.
Laura: This is the end of the first season. Kendall is driving in a car with a waiter, and they’re both on drugs, they crash it into a river, the other guy dies, it’s potentially manslaughter. But his father pays everyone off. And actually, the point of that episode is that his father reasserts control over the son. In any other show, this would be the dramatic focus of the whole show: a potential murder, a hit-and-run, someone fleeing the scene of someone else dying. But in Succession, this is a very small plot point—it’s actually leading us back into this bigger arc about who is going to be the CEO of Waystar Royco.
Jennifer: And that’s the mutually assured immunity. That’s how power is negotiated among people. You never know when you’re going to mess up, and everyone has something on you. And the father knows how to play this game better than anyone else. So he got what he wanted by being there to rescue the son. No one’s worried about going to jail. Everyone’s worried about the optics.
Alex: They’re worried more about reputational costs and about how the shareholders respond more than morality, but also more than—at least until maybe this upcoming season—about the state punishing them for anything that they’re doing. Does that seem realistic to you, in terms of the behavior of the real-life versions of people like this?
Jennifer: Well, let’s just put a few faces on this. Look at the Trump family. Look at the Biden family. Both families have at least one son who has appeared, at least to my eyes, to be impaired in some way—maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s drugs—and they’ve gotten the help that they needed, you don’t hear them getting arrested for drug use. You don’t hear it.
Laura: You mentioned the Trump family, and some of these figures are sort of recognizable; maybe Kendall is sort of a Jared Kushner figure. But it seems like the show is drawing on so many famous wealthy, powerful American families. Can you give us a breakdown of the kinds of incidents that we might recognize that the show’s given us from the pages of the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal?
Jennifer: The whole family owning a trust that then asserts a block of control over a public company is very similar to the Viacom Sumner Redstone situation. I think the media empire aspect of this is probably quite similar to Fox News.
Alex: Actually, I find the News Corp example really interesting because I think Rupert Murdoch was, clearly, a major influence on this show. And when we think of white-collar crime, we might think of something like Bernie Madoff, who personally had a Ponzi scheme that ripped a lot of people off. He committed massive financial fraud. But I do think that there is this sense that the show is interested in, and that I’m interested in, of the crime committed by the firm more broadly. News Corp, to use that example, they got in a lot of trouble for phone hacking. The U.K. Murdoch-owned tabloids in Great Britain were routinely illegally accessing the voicemails of the people they were writing about, and it led to a parliamentary inquiry, and it was a huge scandal, but it felt to me like that’s an institutional crime committed by a company. Do you think that sort of thing is less prosecuted than individual crimes in the U.S.?
Jennifer: If we think about people at the highest levels of an institution like a corporation engaging in crime, we have the problems both of prosecuting the entity in this country as well as holding the senior-most people, who benefited the most, accountable. In terms of institutions, we have the sort of too-big-to-fail reluctance. This is the policy of “think about the collateral consequences if you prosecute the entity.”
Alex: There’s two problems, basically: We’re both bad at punishing the people involved in these companies, and we let the companies themselves off the hook because we’re worried about the consequences if we actually held them responsible.
Jennifer: There’s a tendency for the Department of Justice, when there was credible evidence that an institution had criminal liability, that they would enter into what’s called a deferred prosecution agreement or nonprosecution agreement, where they say, “We’ll put off prosecuting you, and we’ll put the statute of limitations on hold,” or we just won’t prosecute you, either one, and here’s what you’d have to do over this three- to five-year period—it involves an outside compliance monitor, it involves paying a boatload of money, and then it’s usually just like, “Follow the law, you weren’t doing that before.” Those kinds of things are what we’ve seen. A corporation can’t go to prison anyway, so not having the felony may not be a big deal, but what about individuals at the corporation who orchestrated this and benefited from it? Those individuals tend not to be prosecuted. It is really infuriating because it means that if you are inside an enterprise, you can shield yourself. If you were part of a mob organization, you wouldn’t be able to, but if you’re part of a corporation, just because it happens to have a legitimate business, if it’s engaged in illegitimate criminal activities, you’re covered.
Alex: That’s really important. And I think it explains a really important plot point in the show, which is that they’re looking for a scapegoat for the cruises thing. They’re looking for someone to assign blame to the fall guy. I’ve written a little bit about this myself, too, but in the Arthur Andersen story, an entire firm got the death penalty. Basically, Arthur Andersen was a major accounting firm that was investigated after the Enron scandal and was convicted of accounting fraud—massive, massive accounting fraud. The government didn’t shut the company down, but it couldn’t function anymore because the SEC won’t accept audits from companies that have been convicted of felonies. So Andersen basically had to shut down, and this has been treated as a cautionary tale of overzealous prosecution, like something that should be avoided in the future by prosecutors at the Department of Justice. Like, “Oh, we went too far.” But from my perspective, an accounting firm that was engaged in massive fraud having to go out of business does not seem like a terrible scenario to be avoided in the future. But that’s just not the kind of thing we do to companies that commit crimes anymore. The show is saying that Waystar Royco is not in danger as a company, so they’re looking for the person who will be blamed for it.
Jennifer: So true. And even that isn’t always necessary. You look at Purdue, which was a family business, maybe still is, and you look at the Sackler family, and what people don’t realize is that this is a repeat offense. Purdue the company and three of its executives, non-Sackler members, back in, I think it was 2007, pleaded guilty to mislabeling. That was the crime that they got them with because it related to treating these highly addictive opioids as not addictive. When they entered into that settlement agreement, and it was a guilty plea in that case, it wasn’t even a deferred prosecution agreement, if you look at the recent criminal settlement, the criminal activity covered in the recent one from 2020 dates back to the same month they entered into that guilty plea. It’s amazing this company can plead guilty several times over the course of its existence, and there are no humans responsible. And yet those humans who aren’t responsible make billions of dollars and keep them even after the firm goes into bankruptcy. I study incentives a lot, and you say harm to reputation, but they’re standing tall. After the company’s first plea, you still had some family members posing in fancy magazines about their homes in the Hamptons.
Laura: A character in the show who seems to be one of the most competent characters, and someone who is carrying a lot of secrets and maybe guilt, is Gerri, the general counsel. Why would someone like her stay? If you see this mess, it stinks, right? Surely she’s employable somewhere else. Why would someone like that stay and get deeper and deeper into this scandal?
Jennifer: As a former corporate lawyer, I admire Gerri and really think that J. Smith Cameron does an incredible job. You ask why she would stay. I guess the question is what’s the alternative? Working in a corporate law firm is a grind. It’s exceedingly stressful. You have to bill, like, every six minutes of your time to a client. You always feel like you’re on the clock. And the thing about being an in-house lawyer that is attractive is you’re with the business people, it’s much more interesting, it’s much more fun. Here she is seeing these corrupt people, but what do they pay her? Half a million dollars a year, a million dollars a year? Maybe she thinks all the other businesses operate the same way. There used to be this expression that they told us in law school: “Remember, it’s the client who goes to jail.” You laugh, but recently that hasn’t been the case. The question is, how much does Gerri know? Does she have plausible deniability or not? I think she’s ultimately a survivor and doesn’t seem personally ambitious. She didn’t want to be head of the company. I think she does her job and just wants to get by. I wouldn’t stay there myself—but, you know, it pays the bills.
Laura: Jennifer Taub is the author of Big Dirty Money: Making White Collar Criminals Pay, which just came out in paperback.