'Why They Do It'

Eugene Soltes, PublicAffairs, 448 pages, $29.99. When Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes set out to discover what motivated white-collar criminals, he unearthed something quite telling — and troubling — about self-perception. For his book, "Why They Do It," Soltes spent years trading letters and phone calls with dozens of former business executives turned convicts, including Ponzi-scheme legend Bernard Madoff; the former chief financial officer of Enron, Andrew Fastow; and the former chief executive of Tyco International, Dennis Koz­lowski. In many cases, Soltes finds, the perpetrators struggle to understand their wrongdoing even after spending years in prison. After all, they hadn't murdered or robbed anyone, and their victims were not right in front of them. "Some, of course, clearly recognized that they had committed a crime, but the person they saw in the mirror was successful, entrepreneurial, and ambitious," Soltes writes. Many of the cases Soltes chronicles have already been examined extensively. But he takes a unique approach, looking for the connections between what motivated these men and asking not what they did but why they did it. Madoff can be dismissed as an oddity, so heartless that he drags down the curve of white-collar criminals. What is left are men driven by ambition and greed who failed to see the difference between crime and smart business tactics, usually because they weren't looking for it and assumed they were too smart to cross the line.