How do rich and powerful people get away with everything?
Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away With It
Elie Honig 2023
"This is no defeatist eulogy for our justice system. This is, rather, a guide to navigate it. If we understand how bosses exploit systemic vulnerabilities, then we can meaningfully call upon the people who make the big decisions- primarily prosecutors- to fight back and pursue justice, no matter how daunting the challenge." Elie Honig
We all kind of accept that the justice system is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. Their perch at the top of society immunizes them from accountability most of the time. Crooked bankers behind the 2008 financial crisis for the most part avoided any sort of jail or fines. Sexual predators like Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein, and Harvey Weinstein got away with horrible abuses for decades before any action was taken. And political leaders around the world literally get away with embezzlement, treason and even murder because they sit at the top of the levers of power.
Accountability for illegal acts is one of the few things we have left to enforce some sort of rules of behavior in a civil society. Once the rich and powerful see how easy it is to get away with things, they will continue to push at the boundaries forever. This is how we ended up with Donald Trump and a whole host of ethically challenged leaders in both politics and business. This type of behavior tends to spread down the chain and corrupts everybody, because no one wants to feel like they are the only one following the rules.
The question of how they do it is at the center of this book, Untouchable, by Elie Honig. Mr. Honig is an ex-prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, and he was involved in prosecutions of dozens of Mafia members, including bosses and high-ranking members. He pulls on his Mafia experience to show how those criminals were finally brought to justice, and looks in depth at the case of Donald Trump, who has become famous for avoiding accountability for many of the illegal things done in his name.
Here are some of the things Honig details for both the Mafia and the other examples that he uses:
- Bosses are able to insulate themselves from much of what their organization does. They never put anything in writing, stay away from crime scenes, and make sure to be cryptic about orders they give to allow them deniability. "Do what you have to do" replaces "kill Jimmy the snitch." The best bosses can maintain a hands off approach to finances and more seedy operations, claiming ignorance in the face of criminal investigations.
- When the organization pays the substantial legal fees and supplies lawyers for underlings who are caught by law enforcement, it often guarantees that the underlings won't cooperate with investigators or take plea deals to turn on the bosses.
- Lawyers are notoriously ethically flexible. The enormous sums of money available for defending the rich and powerful not only buy the best, most clever lawyers, but campaign contributions can affect judges and prosecutors as well.
- Jurors and witnesses are vulnerable to intimidation. Some will go along with anything to avoid confrontation or threats to their lives or families.
- Group dynamics can reward silence and loyalty. Those who speak out against injustice are often ostracized, fired, or otherwise punished, creating an atmosphere of fear that keeps everybody in line.
- Celebrities, politicians, and CEO's are treated differently by prosecutors than ordinary people. More proof and more certainty are expected before indicting anybody at the top, and prosecutors are humans just like the rest of us- afraid to lose a high-profile case with enormous stakes that could ruin their career.
- Presidents have the power to pardon crimes, an enormous advantage that can keep underlings loyal and reward those in their circle.
Possibly the most disturbing thing I learned from this book was the 2016 Supreme Court decision letting convicted Virginia governor Bob McDonnell off the hook. The court ruled (8-0!) that McDonnell couldn't be found guilty of taking bribes for favors because none of the favors he gave were "official acts" of government. This technicality has led to many crooked politicians being let off the hook because their acts weren't explicit enough. It's almost like they had to be caught on tape taking the bribe money and immediately turning around and signing a bill in favor of the briber. Honig roasts the Supreme Court justices, many of whom are now being scrutinized for accepting favors, and points to this one ruling as the most damaging to political ethics ever.
The author devotes much of the book to the cases of Donald Trump, and much of that was familiar stuff that has been out there for years. He lays out nine separate areas of serious criminal activity that he would have gone after Trump for had he been in charge. Becoming president has allowed Trump to claim executive privilege as a shield for much of his activity, while pardoning many of his cronies for doing his bidding. The fact that Trump has skated past accountability is one of the reasons so many like him- his seeming invincibility is inviting to those of us who admire bad boys who buck the system. Trump is a master of the system and has avoided consequences while getting away with behavior that would have buried any other person.
Untouchable was written at the end of 2022, before any of the four indictments that Trump is now facing were filed. So perhaps his winning streak is about to end- but don't count him out. Honig has harsh words for Attorney General Merrick Garland, who he claims has shied away from confrontations with Trump. Any indictments should have been filed in 2021, and now 2023 is too late to affect the 2024 election. If Trump is somehow elected, all bets are off as to if he will ever face justice.
Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Mafia Dons, and even a few politicians eventually faced consequences- prison, humiliation, loss of status, and that can happen again, but only when brave people stand up and speak up. Honig points to whistleblowers, victims, and journalists who were instrumental in bringing down the people mentioned in this book. It's disconcerting to see how fragile our system of justice can be. It's run by people- imperfect, persuadable people- and the rest of us need to be vigilant about holding those people accountable. The very fabric of civilized society depends on it.