Amateur psychologists — and maybe a few professionals — will have a field day with Marc Dreier, the disgraced New York super-lawyer profiled in the documentary "Unraveled."
What makes a white collar criminal tick? What motivates a man who already had it all to steal more than $750 million in a brazen fraud?
One thing that is instantly clear in the film is that Dreier has one trait in common with virtually every white collar criminal I have ever covered: a freakishly huge ego.
Even while trying to sound remorseful in the film, Dreier just can't seem to keep his ego in check.
"How many people who are condemning what I did would know for sure they would never do anything like what I did if they knew they wouldn't get caught? Is what holds people back from doing things like this their fundamental virtue, or is it the fear of getting caught? I think in many people, in the case of many people, it is fundamental virtue. And I applaud those people. But I think in many, many people, it's either lack of opportunity, or fear of getting caught."
That's right, folks. You would do the same things Marc Dreier did if only you were as smart, fearless and savvy as he is.
(Read More: Diary of a Scam: The Fall of Power Attorney Marc Dreier.)
The mere fact that Dreier allowed filmmaker Marc Simon to chronicle his 90-day house arrest between his guilty plea and sentencing is evidence enough that Dreier — for all he had been through — still has a big head. Here he is, in what could be the final days of relative freedom for the rest of his life, allowing a film crew to document it for posterity. Who does that?
The worlds of business and law breed big personalities. Marc Dreier inhabited both, and his personality is as big as they come. That in itself is no crime. Advancing a vision and leading a corporation require supreme self-confidence and a unique sense of self. It's when things start to go bad — business goes down, expansion plans fall behind — that ego and integrity come face to face and the business leader has to make a choice. Dreier is hardly the first executive to go with his ego.
(Read More: White Collar 'Country Club' Prisons? Not So Much.)
In 2001, Enron Chairman Ken Lay found that the company he created was on the ropes. The sudden resignation of his hand-picked CEO Jeff Skilling, revelations of double dealing by CFO Andy Fastow, and the shock of 9/11 in between sent Enron into a death spiral. Prosecutors said Lay was so consumed with saving "his" company that he repeatedly lied to shareholders, insisting almost to the bitter end that Enron was stronger than ever.
Lay was convinced that his 2006 trial would clear his name. He was revered in the community after all — a grandfatherly figure often mentioned before Enron's collapse as a possible mayor of Houston or a Cabinet secretary in Washington.
For weeks, through every twist and turn in the trial, he told me how he looked forward to "gettin' the truth out." But when he finally took the witness stand in his own defense and faced blistering cross examination by prosecutor John Hueston, the kindly grandfather turned prickly and indignant, and came off as being arrogant.
When the jury convicted him on all counts, Lay was genuinely shocked. He died of heart failure six weeks later, before he could appeal, so as a matter of law his convictions were wiped out. I have never subscribed to the conspiracy theories about Lay faking his death — not just because they are absurd, but because after observing him up close every day for months, I am convinced his ego would never have allowed him to go into hiding and give up trying to clear his name.
(Read More: Faces of the Enron Scandal: Where Are They Now?)
A year earlier, I stood in the hallway of a federal courthouse in Manhattan chatting with Bernie Ebbers, his wife and daughter about Grand Rapids, Mich., where the WorldCom CEO briefly attended college and I had worked years later as a reporter. It was a surreal, unguarded moment, and it ended suddenly when word came that the jury in his criminal trial had reached a verdict.
Ebbers was convicted on nine criminal counts in the massive WorldCom accounting fraud. He, too, was completely shocked.
Despite overwhelming evidence of his role in the fraud, Ebbers seemed genuinely put upon throughout his trial. On particularly bad days, his encounters with us in the press were nothing like the strangely cordial conversation we had in the hallway just before the verdict. On more than one occasion, Ebbers, a big man at 6-feet-4, literally shoved photographers out of his way with an angry grunt as he entered and left the courthouse.
Ebbers' crimes themselves were crimes of ego more than greed.
Even as the 1990s technology bubble was beginning to deflate, Ebbers was so intent on continuing to grow the telecom empire he created and became identified with that he demanded his people "hit the numbers" even if it meant breaking the law. Ebbers didn't need the money at that point. But he needed his company.
Marc Dreier was even more identified with the company he founded than Ken Lay or Bernie Ebbers were. The firm, after all, carried his name — Dreier LLP.
"It was terribly important to me that I have my name on a law firm," Dreier says in the film. "I couldn't tolerate the idea that people that I thought were intellectually less talented or less capable than me had more recognition or more wealth."
So he admits he lied, cheated and stole to keep the fraud going. Yet, by cooperating in the making of "Unraveled," he still seeks the last word.
Unlike some of the more famous white collar criminals, Dreier did plead guilty rather than fight to the end. But that may have had more to do with the fact that his empire had so completely collapsed and he was caught so red-handed that he had little choice.
So when Dreier asks whether any of us would do the same things he did if we thought we wouldn't get caught, he may have subconsciously been talking to himself. It is as if he wonders what he could have done differently to keep the scam going and continue getting the wealth and recognition he was so convinced he deserved.