In their terrific new book "Circle of Greed: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Lawyer Who Brought Corporate America to Its Knees," Patrick Dillon and Carl M. Cannon detail the fascinating story of Bill Lerach, who rose to the pinnacle of his profession only to be brought down by criminal wrongdoing. My review of the book appears here.
While I was reading it, I began to wonder about the Pulitzer-prize winning journalists who had written the book and what they thought about their subject and their project. I approached them and asked them if they would be willing to answer some questions. To my surprise, they said yes.
I have set out below my written Q&A exchange with the authors. The text in italics following the Qs represents my questions, and the text following the As represents their answers.
Q: Why did you write a book about Bill Lerach?
A: He’s a great story, and we’re journalists – it was a natural. Bill Lerach’s life and career is a classic parable. We couldn’t resist.
Q: Lerach cooperated with your work on this book. What effect do you think this had? What would you say to any reader who thinks his cooperation meant that you soft- pedaled what you wrote?
A: We’d tell them to read the book. We hardly soft-pedal Bill Lerach’s crimes or his rough edges. Bill is on record as telling other journalists that he thought we were tough, but fair. We’ll accept that description. And Bill cooperated without ever so much as asking to see a single word of this manuscript before it was published in its final form. To us, that willingness to let the chips fall as they might demonstrated a gutsy pragmatism and a confidence in his own story that we couldn’t help but admire.
Q: You obviously drew on many difference sources in gathering your material for the book. Did you run into any particular problems in trying to gather information?
A: Much of the material was in the public record. We found other troves in our own files in our attics and basements as we both had written about Learch earlier in our careers. Most of the lawyers and other key actors were generous with their time. Our big regret is that Lerach’s law partner Melvyn Weiss would not consent to an interview.
Q: Your book is rich in anecdote and detail. What do you think was the most interesting thing you found in gathering information?
A: Well, Kevin, you’ve read it so you know. Fascinating scenes crop up throughout this narrative—because they did in Bill Lerach’s life. He seemed at times to be a real-life (if very smart) version of Forrest Gump. We hope these tales delight readers as much as they did the authors when we came across them: The preposterous art theft that led to the criminal case against Milberg Weiss; the epic trials pitting Lerach against the Methodist Church and, later, against the entire "Chicago school" of business. Bill doing legal battle with the great Sam Witwer; sweet talking iconic leftist Jerry Voorhis, the congressman defeated by Richard Nixon; Bill funneling money to Bill Clinton and then asking him for a veto; wringing a dramatic apology from John McCain; tangling with New York plaintiff’s lawyer Sean Coffey; cross-examining Roy Disney; jousting with Kirk Kerkorian; readying for holy war against Dick Cheney and Halliburton, suing every Silicon Valley entrepreneur you ever heard of; prevailing in Enron. Writing this book sometimes felt like being on a treasure hunt.
Q. Your book reports on Lerach’s question whether his criminal prosecution was in retaliation for his pursuit of claims against Halliburton. What do you make of that idea?
A: Readers of the book will see that this simply isn’t true. The criminal investigation of Milberg Weiss and its top partners predates the Halliburton mess, and it was managed by a dedicated civil servant in the Los Angeles U.S. attorney’s office named Richard Robinson who is not only a career prosecutor, but a Democrat. We think Bill makes some of these assertions for dramatic effect. Having said that, what’s that old phrase, "You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you." That may apply here. How many individuals in this country found their business practices targeted by the Republican Party’s 1994 "Contract with America"? How many had an act of Congress aimed specifically at them? (The Private Securities Reform Litigation Act of 1995 was dubbed the "Get Lerach Act.".) Bill Lerach didn’t imagine that. Bill also believes that the U.S. Supreme Court went through some strange gyrations to make third-party actors virtually immune from class action securities lawsuits—even when their fraud is massive and manifest. In this contention, Lerach appears to the authors to be on solid footing.
Q: While writing this book, you obviously had to become immersed in the world of securities class action litigation. Based on what you have seen, what do you think about this kind of litigation and the way it goes forward in our system?
A: Kevin, as someone who is interested in the other side of this issue—the other side from Bill Lerach, that is—you know the havoc that the old "strike suits" wreaked on entrepreneurs, corporate officers, and the companies that insured them. This was especially true before enactment of the PSLRA, when class action securities cases were filed on no more evidence than a simple dip in a company’s stock price. Even in cases with no merit at all, the cost of settling them was less than the cost of defending them. So a consensus emerged that these lawsuits had become a kind of legalized extortion racket and were an anathema to justice and good business practices. Bill Lerach and Mel Weiss and their imitators came to be seen as glorified shakedown artists. We had covered these issues before writing this book (Carl Cannon covered Washington for the San Jose Mercury News, and Pat Dillon edited Forbes ASAP in Silicon Valley) and we knew this back story. It forms the narrative tension in Circle of Greed.
However, as we delved deeply into the rationale for such lawsuits, we couldn’t help but notice some other facets of your question. Here’s one: Although Lerach would allege fraud based on little more evidence than a falling stock price and a few upbeat press releases, he would in the course of his litigation routinely uncover instances of insider trading—the dumping of stock by top company officers immediately before bad news was about to be announced. The authors couldn’t help but be disillusioned by the frequency of this practice. A second point we would make: Once Congress decided that class action securities lawsuits were not the best way to enforce shareholders’ interests (not to mention honest business dealings), it became incumbent on the Securities and Exchange Commission to be ever-more vigilant against fraud. Perhaps this was too big a job for the SEC, but this did not happen. The upshot, as Lerach himself had warned many times, was a tsunami of fraud on Wall Street in the past decade that did great harm to investors and working people alike and which we believe made the current recession much worse for almost all Americans.
Q: In your book’s Epilogue, you write that "Bill Lerach was no monster, but he had indeed gone after fraud by using fraud." Do you think that this is just an instance of someone getting corrupted by the system, or was it something innate, something particular to Lerach himself, that drove his willingness to cross the line?
A: You mentioned that line in your very thoughtful review of our book, but let’s parse that sentence for a moment: He used fraud to go after fraud. That means there was fraud to begin with, and Bill Lerach would say that this reality—not his legal strategy—was the larger underlying problem. This contention may be self-serving, but it’s worth taking seriously. There was indeed something rotten on Wall Street—and in Silicon Valley—and instead of addressing the way corporate capitalism had been turned into an insiders’ game, Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court spent their energy reining in the law firms that were rooting out corporate corruption and malfeasance.
As for Lerach’s personal motivation in being willing to cross the line into illegality, that seems to entail a complicated set of incentives and impulses. Let’s start with his fierce competitive streak. Like most super-successful trial lawyers, Bill Lerach loves to win and hates to lose. In the law, as in life, that attitude can lead to ethical shortcuts. Also, altruism was certainly a factor as well—a fierce brand of altruism animated by Bill’s populist political views: Lerach was convinced, and remains so, that he was doing good with these lawsuits. Finally, of course, greed was a factor in this epic morality play, just as it was for those on the receiving end of Lerach’s wrath—hence our title.
Q: Have you been surprised by the responses your book as received?
A: We’ve been pleased so far, although it’s instructive to see how critics and commentators tend to concentrate on passages in the book that bolster their pre-existing views.
Q: What do you think the lessons learned or conclusions are from the story you have told in this book?
A: We’d mention two: First, politics in this country really is broken. It’s an overly partisan hothouse environment where monetary contributions crowd out the art of compromise, and where the merits of any given issue give way to a desire to reward your allies and punish your rivals. Second, in the heat of his three-decade war of attrition with corporate officers and directors Bill Lerach ultimately began to resemble his adversaries—the ones he detested the most. There’s a lesson here for all of us in this, and it’s the line that precedes the one you mentioned about monsters. It’s from Friedrich Nietzsche, who put it this way: "Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become one himself."
The D&O Diary would like to express its deep gratitude to the authors’ willingness to answer our questions. We hasten to add that everyone who has read this far really should definitely read the book.
Speakers’ Corner: On Tuesday, March 16, 2010, I will be speaking at the C5 D&O Liability Insurance Forum in London. I will be speaking on a panel with my good friend John McCarrick of the Edwards Angell law firm on the topic "What are the Risks to European D&O Insurers from Class and Derivative Actions in the U.S." Information regarding the event can be found here.