This year marks the 75th birthday of a concept that is central to those of us engaged in AML endeavours: white collar crime. On 27 December 1939, American sociologist Edwin Sutherland gave a speech to the American Sociological Association, of which he had just been elected president, and he called it “The White Collar Criminal”. It was published as a paper in 1940, and you can read the full text here. (I recommend it; you’ve got to like a man who quotes railroad president A B Stickney’s comment to sixteen other railroad presidents that “I have the utmost respect for you gentlemen individually, but as railroad presidents I wouldn’t trust you with my watch out of my sight.”)
In essence, Sutherland scorned traditional theories of crime which blamed poverty, broken homes and disturbed personalities. He noted that many of the law breakers in business were wealthy, from happy family backgrounds, and all too mentally sound. And he defined white collar crime as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation”. After ten years of further research, Sutherland published his elaborated theory in a book entitled “White Collar Crime”, in which he documented in detail the crimes perpetrated by America’s seventy largest private companies and fifteen public utility corporations. However, his publisher insisted that all references to the companies by name be deleted for fear of libel suits, and it was not until 1983 (1983!) that the uncensored version of the book was published.
So let us raise a glass to the man who dared to speak out, and to the radical concept that he popularised: that the most successful financial criminals are usually armed with briefcases and charm rather than swag bags and cudgels.