Alex Gibney’s documentaries have covered some of the biggest frauds of our times. The award-winning director talks to Fraud Magazine about what he’s learned about the psychology of corporate fraud and more. It might not be what you expect.

In an age when documentaries and films about fraudsters and scammers are in vogue, Oscar and Emmy award-winning director Alex Gibney is a doyen of the genre. Gibney’s prolific output is impressive. He’s directed about 40 documentaries and movies in the last 12 years alone. And while he’s covered a whole range of themes, much of his focus over his long career has been on some of the biggest fraud cases in recent history.

Ever since his directorial debut in 1980, “The Ruling Classroom,” which documents a social studies experiment at a California middle school that simulates American society and ends in corruption, Gibney has been exploring the psychology of deceit and why people succumb to fraudulent activity.

But his first big break came when he pitched the idea of making a documentary about Enron to one of the executives at HDNet Films, a company created in 2001 to make low-budget films through high-definition programming and founded by Mark Cuban — the billionaire entrepreneur best known for his appearances on reality TV show “Shark Tank.”

“The exec who liked the idea said, ‘Just send Mark Cuban an email — keep it short — and he will either say yes or no,’” Gibney recalls in a recent interview with Fraud Magazine. “He said yes, but I only wished I had asked for more money.”

The 2005 documentary, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” entertainingly details the now-infamous energy company’s rise and fall and the accounting scandal that resulted in its 2001 bankruptcy. It not only helped lay bare for the broader public the scale of fraud involved, but how analysts and bankers turned a blind eye to the financial shenanigans at the company and failed to ask basic questions.

The film contains interviews with Bethany McLean and Peter Elkin, the two reporters who helped break the story and authored a book of the same name, several Enron executives, the former California governor Gray Davis, who was faced with an energy crisis partly of Enron’s doing, and whistleblower Sherron Watkins, among others. (See “Twenty years later, could another Enron happen?” by Sherron Watkins, Fraud Magazine, November/December 2021.)

The documentary quickly won critical praise. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper described it as a “brilliantly executed, brutally entertaining dissection of what one observer called the greatest corporate fraud in American history.” (See “Ebert & Roeper,” Rotten Tomatoes, April 18, 2005.)

“I started making docs about business for a lot of complicated reasons, and in business there tends to be a lot of fraud,” he says. “So, I ended up being fascinated by those stories and Enron was the start.”

Since then, Gibney has documented a whole host of fraud and corruption cases in films whose topics range from Volkswagen’s emissions scandal to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff to cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping scam, to name just a few. More recently, he’s focused his attention on Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the now-defunct startup Theranos, who in January was found guilty of lying to investors about the company’s blood-testing device. And just last year, Gibney released a documentary on how Purdue Pharma, the company owned by the Sackler family, hid the highly addictive characteristics of its pain drug OxyContin to make billions and started an opioid crisis that remains with us today.

Through these documentaries, he’s helped us understand the psychology of the people who commit these crimes, laid out the facts about wrongdoing at the highest levels of our society and shone a spotlight on the pervasiveness of fraud.

Gibney, this year’s recipient of the ACFE Guardian Award, will be a keynoter at the 33rd Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference June 19-24 in Nashville, Tenn. (and virtual). And while the award has traditionally been presented to a journalist, Gibney’s body of work falls squarely under the criteria required to receive this honor. That’s to say, someone whose determination, perseverance and commitment to the truth has contributed significantly to the fight against fraud.

Investigative skills

Indeed, much of Gibney’s style of documentary filming parallels what happens in investigative journalism. In his 2021 two-part documentary about the opioid epidemic, “The Crime of the Century,” Gibney worked with Washington Post reporters and unearthed new evidence to show how drug companies were responsible for the drug crisis. (See “Opioid Crisis: Filmmaker Details The Medical System’s ‘Crime of the Century,’” by Rachel Martin, Phil Harrell, H.J. Mai and James Doubek, NPR, May 10, 2021.)

“I sometimes quip that I am a filmmaker with journalistic baggage,” says Gibney. “I am making films but a lot of the work we do is very similar to what you would do in investigative journalism.”

In “The Crime of the Century” he brings new documents and unseen footage that adds validity to the underlying theme of the documentary. This includes a 2015 deposition of Richard Sackler, chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, emails obtained by the filmmakers showing that executives actively concealed their knowledge about the addictive properties of OxyContin and details of how Purdue sat down for three days in a motel with then-director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Curtis Wright, to get approval for the broader use of the painkilling drug. Soon thereafter Wright nabbed a $400,000 job with Purdue. (See “‘Crime of the Century’ Review: Manufacturing the Opioid Epidemic,” by John Anderson, The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2021, and “‘The Crime of the Century’: Opioid Doc’s 10 Most Shocking Revelations,” by Alex Noble, The Wrap, May 11, 2021.)

Gibney’s documentaries arguably impact and ultimately engage a larger audience than traditional media could ever do, and in turn bring greater awareness about fraud by entertainingly providing an unvarnished look at fraudsters and how difficult it can be to bring perpetrators to justice.

“My dad was a print journalist, and he wanted me to go into the family business, but ultimately I chose filmmaking in part because you reach more people,” he says.

“That raises the question of whether you can make (these documentaries) in a way that is just more than imparting information. It is engaging viewers emotionally in narratives that are compelling even if they are not necessarily interested in the technical aspects of the subject. In other words, I have never thought it was a bad thing to be entertaining.”

The psychology of fraud

Indeed, Gibney’s documentaries are both informative and entertaining, not least because of the psychological portraits he paints of his subjects and the insights into why they commit fraud. Whether it’s the tape recordings of the Enron energy traders cheering about how they’re taking down the California energy grid, Richard Sackler’s deadpan expression during his deposition or how former sales executive at Insys Therapeutics, Alec Burlakoff, describes bribing doctors to peddle its fentanyl drug, they provide windows into the psyche of people who, under the right circumstances, are willing to cross the line into fraudulent territory.

“I am not just interested in the evidence of fraud itself, but also in the psychology of fraud,” he says. “And I think that is different than what you would do for a daily newspaper.”

In his 2019 documentary about Holmes, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” Gibney takes the concept that people are more inclined to lie if they believe they’re working toward a noble cause. And he suggests that this type of reasoning was part of Holmes’ mental process as she strove to build a product that could accurately run hundreds of medical tests on a single drop of blood and revolutionize this corner of the health care market. That wasn’t to be, however, and was never really feasible with the use of existing technology, according to experts. (See “Theranos’s invention never would have worked. Here’s why,” The Verge, Episode 2, YouTube, Dec. 30, 2021.)

Fraud and the noble cause

Gibney says a character like Bernie Madoff, who very consciously committed fraud daily for financial gain through his Ponzi scheme, held less interest for him than Holmes. Even though she knew her product wasn’t delivering accurate diagnostic information, she’d convinced herself that her cause was noble, and the ends justified the means.

That warped altruistic attitude seems to have motivated many of Gibney’s subjects. For example, Richard Sackler argued that Purdue aggressively peddled OxyContin to help Americans in pain. And Enron CEO Jeff Skilling believed that unfettered free markets were a catalyst for social good.

“Most people want to believe that there are good people and there are bad people, and that the fraudsters know they are committing a terrible crime and do it anyway, like the Mafia,” says Gibney. “But what I have discovered that generally speaking in corporate fraud that is not the case at all — from Enron to Theranos. People who commit fraud feel they are entitled to do so to reach that noble goal, and that is what allows fraud to happen because everyone believes they are a good guy; otherwise, you are a professional criminal.”

Holmes also wove a convincing and uplifting story about revolutionizing the health care industry and helping ordinary Americans through this new technology she was developing. And she was hardly unique among startups in spinning an alluring narrative to bring in new capital. Hype is an integral component of the tech scene in Silicon Valley startups, and Holmes is in some ways indistinguishable from many young ambitious entrepreneurs.

But while many of those startups have also fallen victim to fraud, Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes captured the public and investors’ imaginations, partly because, as Gibney points out, she was a young woman succeeding spectacularly in the male-dominated Silicon Valley. (See “16 of The Biggest Alleged Startup Frauds of All Time,” CB Insights, Research Briefs, May 23, 2019.)

Indeed, Holmes pulled the wool over the eyes of some very sophisticated politicians and investors. To name just a few, media magnate Rupert Murdoch and two former U.S secretaries of state — George Shultz and Henry Kissinger — all initially bought her pitch. Then-President Barack Obama even made Holmes a U.S. ambassador for global entrepreneurship. (See “The White House Celebrates Entrepreneurs Around the World,” by Jenna Brayton, The White House Blog, May 11, 2015, and “How Elizabeth Holmes convinced powerful men like Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, and George Shultz to sit on the board of the now disgraced blood-testing startup Theranos,” by Lydia Ramsey Pflanzer, Insider, March 19, 2019.)

“One of Elizabeth’s great skills — and one often admired by entrepreneurs — was that she was a magnificent storyteller,” Gibney says. “She could tell a great story about herself that was inspiring and made people want to invest in it. There was willful denial because they wanted to believe her story.”

Some critics said Gibney should’ve been harder on Holmes and called out the fraud in stronger terms rather than focus on Silicon Valley’s well-known “fake it until you make it” culture, her belief in a noble cause and how she modeled her career on storied inventor Thomas Edison, who sometimes lied to the public until his inventions worked. But Gibney thinks these critics are missing the point. (See “In The Inventor, Alex Gibney Goes Shockingly Soft on Alleged Theranos Fraud Elizabeth Holmes,” by Amy Glynn, Paste, March 18, 2019.)

“I don’t think that is letting anyone off the hook,” he says. “It is actually more terrifying because it means that every company can have someone who thinks they are a good guy, but to achieve their goals, which were perhaps unreasonably set by higher management, they engage in fraud.”

Tone at the top

Gibney says he consistently sees fraud cases at companies with poor tone at the top — a concept familiar to fraud examiners. “One of the issues I see over and over again in these big fraud cases is that you generally don’t find it to be a case of a few bad apples,” he says. “Usually, you find that good people end up becoming corrupt, in part, because of the kinds of incentive put in place by higher management.”

Gibney gives the example of Volkswagen’s drive to become the No. 1 automaker in the U.S., and, in the process, how the German car manufacturer was caught in 2015 installing so-called defeat devices to cheat emissions tests — a story he tells in a 2018 investigative documentary called “Hard NOx.” (See “Dirty Money review – Alex Gibney left choking with rage by VW,” by Sam Wollaston, The Guardian, Jan. 27, 2018.)

“The thinking was we will solve this problem but for now — because our bosses say we have to launch — we’ll come up with this cheat,” he says. “We won’t even call it a cheat. It is something we’ll have to do for now, but we’ll fix it later.”

This wink-and-nod culture often causes massive frauds, such as Volkswagen’s emissions scandal. But the resulting executive corporate-speak about achieving goals and beating the competition rather than explicit statements of wrongdoing can impede clear-cut criminal prosecutions.

“Not surprisingly you look for the smoking gun and you say where is the piece of paper where the boss says, ‘Please cheat’? I haven’t seen documents from Volkswagen’s president to its engineers saying, ‘Please commit massive fraud so we can capture the American market,’” says Gibney.

“Well, it is often not there, but there is an expectation to do whatever you [need] to do to get this done, and that sometimes translates into terrible things.”

Broader challenges

Indeed, the process of holding perpetrators accountable is fraught with challenges in a system that at times benefits the wealthy and the powerful, as “The Crime of the Century,” illustrates so well.

The film shows that while prosecutors in 2006 had recommended indicting Purdue of mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, the drug company ultimately got a slap on the wrist in 2007 when three executives pleaded guilty to “misbranding,” and the parent company agreed to pay $600 million in fines and other payments. (See “In Guilty Plea, OxyContin Maker to Pay $600 Million,” by Barry Meier, The New York Times, May 10, 2007, and “Purdue Pharma escaped serious charges over opioid in 2006, memo shows,” by Edward Helmore, The Guardian, Aug. 19, 2020.)

It wasn’t for another decade or so that Purdue was finally forced into bankruptcy in September 2019 due to lawsuits over the opioid crisis, and a month later pleaded guilty to criminal charges relating to the marketing of OxyContin, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in violations of the anti-kickback statute. In March, it reached a nationwide settlement of more than $10 billion, with as much as $6 billion to come from the Sackler family. The agreement shields the Sacklers from more civil litigation but not from criminal suits. (See “Sacklers and Purdue Pharma Reach New Deal With States Over Opioids,” by Jan Hoffman, The New York Times, March 3, 2022, and “The role of the Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family in the Opioid Epidemic,” hearing before Congressional Committee, U.S. Government Publishing Office, Dec. 17, 2020.)

Prior to Purdue’s demise, however, other drug companies, encouraged by the relatively mild rebuke given to Purdue in its 2007 settlement, looked to cash in on the sale of opioids and turned a blind eye to the distributors and doctors who were failing to follow prescription laws.

As retold in “The Crime of the Century,” Joe Rannazzisi, a DEA agent who ran the drug diversion division, warned pharmaceutical firms of unusually large shipments of opioids that were likely going onto the black market. He looked to crack down on suspicious opioid orders only to have politicians amend the Controlled Substances Act through the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act (EPAEDEA) to make it more difficult to immediately shut down suspicious drug distribution networks following heavy lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry. He was eventually forced out of the agency in 2015. [See “Who is Joe Rannazzisi: The DEA man who fought the drug companies and lost,” by Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post, Oct. 15, 2017, and “Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act (EPAEDEA) of 2016,” Congress.gov, April 19, 2016.]

According to The Washington Post article, the new law changed four decades of DEA practice with a few words. The DEA could previously freeze drug shipments that posed an “imminent danger” to the community. The Controlled Substances Act law now says that the DEA must demonstrate that a company’s actions represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat” — a much higher bar.

The bill was passed by unanimous vote, and it’s clear that some politicians were unaware of the impact the new wording would have on DEA enforcement, despite Rannazzisi’s very public warnings.

“I went on an Al Franken podcast, who had been a senator at the time, and he didn’t realize [the true impact of the bill’s new wording], which is how lobbyists work their magic,” says Gibney. (See “Alex Gibney Talks Opioids & His Doc ‘The Crime of the Century,’” the Al Franken Podcast, posted on Sept. 19, 2021.)

Bubbling underneath Gibney’s documentaries is a sense that untethered markets help encourage modern-day capitalism to run amok and in turn cause massive frauds that policymakers and regulators can help deter if they take a more hands-on approach. Gibney doesn’t necessarily disagree and has said as much in other interviews. (See “Alex Gibney on Why He Takes on the Opioid Crisis in ‘The Crime of the Century’ Documentary,” by Katie Kilkenny, The Hollywood Reporter, June 10, 2021.)

“I do think that is a problem,” he says. “The market encourages incredible innovation, but once you decide that the only thing that is important is the bottom line … then other values fall by the wayside.”

The view that a public company’s No. 1 job is to deliver returns to its shareholders can be particularly damaging and act as a justification for fraudulent activity and other wrongdoing, argues Gibney.

“That wasn’t always the view, but that has become the view, and in that context, whatever you have to do to make money is OK,” he says. “My professor used to say that economic man is not rational, but a rationalizer. And so, you have these rationalizations.” (See “Economic Man,” by Will Kenton, Investopedia, June 7, 2020.)

Asking the right questions

Exposing wrongdoing and ultimately preventing fraud — a key tenet of ACFE’s founder and Chairman Dr. Joseph T. Wells, CFE, CPA — is often difficult in such an environment. But sometimes it’s a matter of asking the simple questions, says Gibney. In the case of Enron, no one had truly tried to pull back the curtain on the energy company’s complex finances and CFO Andrew Fastow’s maze of off-balance sheet special purpose vehicles that concealed mountains of debt and worthless assets from investors. That is until Fortune magazine reporter Bethany McLean confronted Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and other executives and asked just how the company made so much money.

“Nobody had bothered to ask that fundamental question because the Enron folks were so good at bluffing: ‘If you have to ask me that question you are not smart enough,’” says Gibney. “No one wants to feel stupid.”

Thankfully, McLean, a former banking analyst at Goldman Sachs, was smart enough to ask the simple question and write an article published under the rather innocuous title “Is Enron Overpriced?” That question is commonly applied to stocks the world over, but for Enron it lit a spark on Wall Street that burned down the energy company’s flimsy edifice. [See “Is Enron Overpriced? (Fortune 2001)” by Bethany McLean, Fortune, Dec. 30, 2015.]

Similarly, Elizabeth Holmes spun a good story about her blood-testing devices — dubbed “Nanotainer” and “Edison machine” — and how a simple finger prick would suffice to run blood tests for various diseases. She often obfuscated more fundamental questions by selling people on how painless and easy the process was. (See “How Theranos’ faulty blood tests got to market – and what that shows about gaps in FDA regulation,” by Ana Santos Rutschman, The Conversation, Oct. 5, 2021.)

“She sold them on ideas like some people are terrified of needles,” says Gibney. “But there are some very good reasons why you don’t get enough information when you draw blood from a finger prick. When somebody has a disease, it is better to have more information, not less, right? Nobody asked that fundamental question.”

However, those people who do ask those questions in an effort to expose fraud and other types of wrongdoing still struggle to find a sympathetic ear despite the growing list of laws to encourage and protect whistleblowers.

Nor are whistleblowers lionized as much as some might think, says Gibney, recalling the reactions from people during the publicity tour for his documentary on Enron. “I would always get asked at almost every venue, ‘What is it with this Sherron Watkins? How come she thinks she is so great?’” he remembers.

The audience’s often dismissive observations of Watkins, the internal whistleblower whose brave efforts to warn about the accounting scandal fell on deaf ears, stood in contrast to the intense curiosity about Lou Pai, the Enron executive who cashed in on millions of dollars in stock just before the company collapsed and evaded federal prosecution. (See “Lou Pai, Enron’s Elusive Mystery Man,” by Madeleine Brand, NPR, Day to Day, May 17, 2006.)

“That gives you a sense of what the audience is really interested in: No. 1, where is the guidebook so I can end up like Lou Pai, and No. 2, there must be something about Sherron Watkins because she made everyone look bad by being a whistleblower,” says Gibney. “That doesn’t look so good for the public.”

Even so, the public seems to love stories about scammers as more and more films and documentaries on this topic are released. This year alone, Netflix has produced a string of fraudster-themed titles, such as “Tinder Swindler,” “Bad Vegan” and “Inventing Anna,” while Hulu premiered its miniseries about the Theranos scandal, “The Dropout.”

More are on the way, including one from Gibney who says he’s working on another film about fraud. “There is a big one I am working on, but it is premature to say anything,” he says. It seems we’ll have to wait to find out more in the next installment of Gibney’s illustrious career.

Paul Kilby is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. Contact him at pkilby@ACFE.com.