Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tangled Webs by James B. Stewart - Book Review




James B. Stewart, author of the very fine new book Tangled Webs chose his title from a line by Sir Walter Scot, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” He then proceeds to show in well wrought detail the twists and turns prominent people have gone through and the losses they have suffered in their efforts to hide from discovery the mistakes they've made. Stewart shows, in no uncertain terms, the consequences of decisions to cover lies and how those decisions not only affect the lives and careers of the liers themselves, but do certain harm to the fabric of American society and culture. Through the stories of Martha Stewart, I. Scooter Libby, Barry Bonds, and Bernie Madoff, Stewart examines high profile lying in the worlds of entertainment, politics, sports, and finance. In each case, he demonstrates conclusively the extensive damage done by lying. 

James B. Stewart
 

James B. Stewart is well suited to write such a book. A lawyer by training, he has been a journalist and professor of journalism for the bast thirty years. He served as executive editor of The American Lawyer after leaving the prestigious New York law firm Cravath, Swain & Moore. He was a founder of Smart Money for which he still writes a column. At present he is Bloomburg professor of business journalism at Columbia University while also serving as a staff writer for the New Yorker. He has received many awards for his writing, including the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism with Daniel Hertzberg. His published books include Blood Sport, Den of Thieves, Disney War and more. In Tangled Webs, James B. Stewart combines his legal and journalistic skills with his moral imagination to build in careful, but not overpowering, detail the crimes committed by these four people as well as the broader implications of their self-serving behavior.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart was an internationally known television personality and CEO of her own billion dollar corporation when she conspired with her broker to sell her shares in ImClone, a pharmaceutical corporation run by her friend Sam Wakshul, using insider information to avoid a loss on a, for her, relatively small investment of $45,000. Had it not been for the guilt felt by Douglas Faneuil, a mid-level broker's assistant at Merrill-Lynch who lied to protect his boss, Stewart's efforts to hide her minor crime might never have come to light.

Scooter Libby
 
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, became the center of a scheme to discredit Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whose classified report undercut the assertion of the administration that yellow cake uranium was being bought from the African country of Niger for Iraq's supposed nuclear program. Wilson was married to CIA agent Valerie Plame, and the idea was to discredit his report based, at least partly, on that relationship. Apparently, in order to protect his boss (and perhaps President George W. Bush, too) Libby was willing to lie to FBI investigators and a Federal grand jury. Although President Bush later commuted his prison sentence, Libby was convicted of perjury and making false statements and sentenced to pay a large fine and serve a short prison sentence, ending his distinguished career.

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, the gifted and spoiled son of hall of famer Bobby Bonds, seemed destined for glory from the time he was a high school athlete. An exceptionally gifted high school athlete, slender and lithe, he attended The University of Arizona, leaving early to accept a high dollar draft offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Twice league MVP in Pittsburgh, Bonds was, nevertheless, voted the least popular player on the team. After a series of salary disputes, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants, the team where his father had starred and his Godfather, Willie Mays, spent a career as one of the all-time greats in baseball. None of the acclaim, success, or heritage made Bonds a nice or an honest man, although he became quite rich. At some time during his time with the Giants he became involved with a personal trainer, Greg Anderson, who introduced him to a variety of steroids taken by mouth and injection which prolonged his career, helped him establish an all-time home run record, while changing his personality for the worse and allowing his body to bulk up and last long enough to establish his historic records. Along the way, investigations into his steroid usage led to the Balco scandal which involved numerous baseball and track & field stars (including Olympic champion Marion Jones) and to the convictions of a number of people. Throughout all this Bonds continued to lie about his use of steroids despite enormous evidence to the contrary that resulted in the jailing of a number of people. Bonds is still under investigation, and his trial is supposed to begin soon.

Bernard Madoff
 

Bernard Madoff was viewed as a powerful force in the investment community, serving in administrative positions as well as running an investment corporation reputed to be managing about fifty billion dollars. Despite a number of articles questioning the legitimacy of his operation and one research study compiled by a somewhat cranky Boston securities analyst calling his operation a gigantic Ponzi scheme, he claimed to manage no money for private investors, thousands of whom continued to pour money into his coffers because of his reports of consistently high returns on investment, claiming a record superior to any other investment adviser. Of all the accounts of investigations in this book, the Madoff study suggests a lack of competence in the capacity of the Federal Government to undertake and follow through on a high profile investigation. Whether due to incompetence or the environment of regulatory leniency practiced by the Bush administration, the SEC repeatedly looked in the wrong direction, sought to find minor infractions in the face of evidence of more serious crimes, or looked away from the long-term consequences of Madoff's behavior. Eventually, Madoff crumbled, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars investments his client's had entrusted him with and, essentially, a life sentence for him.

Stewart draws from testimony, extensive interviews, news reports, and the results of several requests under the Freedom of Information Act to draw together his account of the crimes and the cover-ups. It's impossible to back away from the thought that, as has been the case in so many other high profile crimes (Watergate, the Clinton impeachment hearings, and the recent tribulations of Anthony Wiener) that trying to hide or lie about one's behavior poses more dangers than the initial behavior. The costs to our society, however, are even greater. When attorneys, despite their ethical obligations, countenance lying from their clients or prosecutors and investigators pull their punches for fear of the political and financial clout of those they're charged with pursuing, only bad outcomes can result. Nevertheless, one of the major takeaways for me was my increased respect for the quality of investigations F.B.I. could develop and the persistence of the U.S. Attorney's offices in the face of possible political opposition.

Tangled Webs is sub-titled “How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff. James B. Stewart builds a strong case on both moral and legal grounds in the context of excellent story-telling. The narrative maintains its drive through the ins and outs of numerous details accumulating to build devastating cases. The book is published by The Penguin Group (ISBN 978-1-59420-269-8) and is available everywhere.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Virtual Book Tours.


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