American presidents

Watch: It took a comedian of Indian origin named Hassan Minhaj to show the US President his place

‘I would say it’s an honour to be here, but that would be an alternative fact.’

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Given US President Donald Trump’s fraught relationship with the media, it was no surprise that he became the first American head of state in decades to skip the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington. It was, of course, no surprise that Trump was a recurring thread through most of the day’s speeches.

But the honours for the evening went to a comedian of Indian origin. Daily Show correspondent Hassan Minhaj performed a blistering act, unsparing in his barbs.

“I would say it’s an honour to be here, but that would be an alternative fact,” he said. “No one wanted to do this, so of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant. No one wanted this gig.”

Minhaj pulled no punches during his 25-minute act: “The leader of our country is not here. That’s because he lives in Moscow, it’s a very long flight. It’d be hard for Vlad to make it. Vlad can’t just make it on a Saturday! As for the other guy, I think he’s in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke.”

He even turned his attention towards Trump’s opponent in the Presidential elections, saying, “Even Hillary Clinton couldn’t be here tonight. I mean, she could have been here, but I think someone told her the event was in Wisconsin and Michigan.”

Some of Minhaj’s harshest comments were also directed towards the media. “Fox News is here,” he began. “I’m amazed you guys even showed up. How are you here in public? It’s hard to trust you guys when you backed a man like Bill O’Reilly for years. But it finally happened. Bill O’Reilly has been fired. But then, you gave him a 25 million dollar severance package. Making it the only package he won’t force a woman to touch.”

Minhaj ended his blistering performance with a reference to the US president’s propensity for tweeting, which he said was protected by the Free Speech amendment in the US constition, even if Trump did not believe in it. “It’s 11 p.m,” Minhaj said. “In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how badly Nikki Minaj did at this dinner. And he’ll be doing it completely sober. And that’s his right. And I’m proud that all of us are here to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”

Also speaking at the event were legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who famously broke the story on Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. The duo traded tricks of the trade (video below) they had learnt over the long careers.

“Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be,” Bernstein said to applause. “[W]hen lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good road map in front of us.” He added an addendum to his famous maxim: “Yes, follow the money but also follow the lies.”

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The White House Correspondents’ Dinner wasn’t as well-attended as it usually is, with numerous corporate sponsors backing out. This was a protest against Trump’s policies, but also because there was a different event called Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, hosted by comedian Samantha Bee. In one of the segments, comedian and actor Will Ferrel turned up as George Bush, commenting on Trump with one hilarious line: “How do you like me now?”

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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

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In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

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Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

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The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

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The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.