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Elizabeth Holmes' fraud trial kicks off today, and that means the Steve Jobs homage sweaters, dodgy blood tests, and that allegedly faked baritone voice will be splashed across TV sets for weeks to come.
But all the attention around the high-profile legal scuffle is a little misleading; prosecutions for white-collar wrongdoing in Silicon Valley are an increasingly endangered species, dropping 84% since 1995. That data has some experts concerned that corporate malfeasance in the tech world could slip by undetected.
Can't Touch This
In one of the most cringeworthy scenes in The Inventor, Alex Gibney's documentary on the now-infamous Theranos founder, Holmes can be seen at an all-staff meeting dancing to MC Hammer's 1990 parachute pants hit "U Can't Touch This."
While her $9-billion empire proved far from untouchable after Theranos' supposedly "revolutionary" rapid blood tests were proven faulty, spectacles like the Holmes trial are becoming increasingly rare:
- In Northern California, federal prosecutors made just 57 white-collar crime cases in 2020, compared to 94 in 2019. That number has fallen steadily since 350 cases were brought in 1995.
- While white-collar prosecutions have declined nationally as resources were reallocated to anti-terrorism in the wake of 9/11, Northern California's drop in cases from 1995 to 2019 doubled the rate of decline in the Southern District of New York, which remains relatively busy prosecuting misconduct on Wall Street.
"The hubris and bluster and sometimes unethical (and occasionally criminal) behavior hasn't gone away, but has increased in volume as the scale, speed, wealth and hype of the tech world — and those companies that identify as tech companies — has gotten greater," Margaret O'Mara, a historian at the University of Washington who specializes in Silicon Valley, told the New York Times.
On Their Best Behavior: Reed Kathrein, a Bay Area lawyer who sued Theranos on behalf of investors and won, has a more optimistic take. He thinks prosecutions have declined because tech companies, awash in investor cash, have little incentive to behave badly. "Everyone is throwing money at these start-ups," he told the Times. "Everyone thinks they're going to win the lottery. It's easier to be honest."