We go behind the scenes on one of the largest financial fraud cases in America.
The twisted story of Manhattan lawyer Marc Dreier is one of fascinating greed, exuberance, and moral contemplation; a story that captures the attitudes of Wall Street immediately before the Lehman Bros. crash, as well as the target of anger felt by the ‘one percent’ protestors of last year.
Marc Drier, was arrested in late 2008 for financial fraud, In May of 2009, Dreier was charged on eight counts, including money laundering, securities, and wire fraud.
What compels a man to steal hundreds of millions of dollars is simple. To that man, at that time, the amount is trivial; and to him it isn’t stealing, it’s borrowing with the intent to return it. However, when the line is crossed and the realization that one has borrowed beyond their means, there remains two choices: change methods or prepare for a descent into hell.
In Dreier’s case, hell had its benefits, and offered a lifestyle worth falling for. Perhaps Dreier thought a ladder could be found half way down—the best of both worlds. Except, that’s not what happened…
Dreier opened his own law firm in 2002, Dreier LLB. He rented a prestigious address on Park Avenue in New York City and set to work attracting the industry’s best and brightest to his ranks. To sustain the growth of his firm in 2004, Dreier engineered a simple strategy to gain access to quick capitol funds and fuel his business expansion: borrow money, while using someone else’s credit. It was a plot that backfired and just four years later Dreier was looking at 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to scheming to sell promissory notes worth $700 million dollars from 13 different hedge funds.
Marc H. Simon, a former legal counsel for Dreier’s firm, directed the 2011 documentary, Unraveled, shot before Dreier’s incarceration. With the documentary being released later this week after spending the last year on the film festival circuit, it’s an opportune time to shed some additional light on the story with Simon’s participation
Prior to speaking with Simon, I was unaware of his previous position with Dreier’s firm. Obviously a potential point of contention—specifically how the film would remain unbiased, was a general concern. Unlike the similar, but much more publicized Madoff scheme that was uncovered weeks after Dreier’s, opinions were kept under lock and key, with only Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes gaining press time.
When the time came to speak with Simon, he easily acknowledged his past with Dreier, and how it was that very relationship that gave him a “unique opportunity to get inside a financial criminal, who is emblematic of this current era of many financial fraudsters and criminals.”
When Dreier LLB folded, almost 800 people lost their jobs; clerks, lawyers, admin, and maintenance. In Dreier’s position, I would expect that last group of individuals I would want making a documentary of my life would be former employees who single handedly I had taken their livelihood from.
Upon asking this of Simon, There was a faint chuckle.. He responded slowly, “sadly, that was (Dreier’s) least concern.”
“It doesn’t make its way onto the film, but Dreier’s on record saying he has no remorse about the employees who lost their jobs. His belief is that businesses go under all the time, and he went so far to say, that he kept the fraud going for a period of time in large part because he knew that when the music stopped, so to speak, that all of these employees would lose their jobs.”
Dreier began laundering in 2004 by approaching hedge funds under the guise of a representative for real estate mogul Sheldon Solow, and asking for short-term loans at an attractive interest rate. The hedge funds were forthcoming as a prominent real estate mogul such as Solow would have the demonstrated need for financial liquidity in buying properties. By misrepresenting Solow and forging his accounting documents and potential investments that would require funding, Dreier was able to secure cash, which he envisioned he would pay back through growth of his own funds.
But how did Solow remain ignorant of these proceedings, and what made Dreier so sure that he wouldn’t find out?
Upon asking this Simon confidently replied, “Absolutely nothing, just one hundred percent hubris. The only thing that I think you can admire about him is the sheer audacity of the man. To do what he did takes serious cojones. Then he turns it around and wants to say to the public, ‘the reason a lot of people don’t do this is because they don’t have the opportunity and they don’t have the fear of getting caught.’”
The film’s opening montage features Dreier in Toronto realizing that if he doesn’t raise USD$40M, he risks living as a fugitive for the rest of his life. At this point in time, he attempts to gain access to funds from the OTPP, a billion dollar plus pension plan and his last chance to pay back loans which were due. Despite having millions transferred into his bank from his client’s escrow accounts and being on international soil, why doesn’t he run? As Simon reminds me, Drier had two other chances to do the same: Once in Dubai where no extradition treaties exist; and another time on his yacht in St. Bart’s. Even then, with up to $100M in personal accounts, Dreier had enough money to live comfortably as a fugitive for the rest of his life.
“One, I think he still believed that some way he could talk himself out of this. He was still in denial about the depth of the mess he had created. Two, I think that there….again, it’s part of his image, part of it I think is on a humanistic level with his family, he knew that if he was to live as a fugitive, that would be far more damaging to his family and his children than coming back and serving the penalty for his crimes. I think he connected to that, and it was for those two principal reasons I don’t think he had an understanding of how great the penalty would be. “
Most of Unraveled is shot in Dreier’s slick $10M Manhattan apartment, and it is here that the audience is treated to a relatively calm, collected man spending time with his son Spencer and faithful dog; most of Simon’s questions are answered as expected with pitch-perfect responses and regrets of his downfall. Dreier’s explanations feel almost forced—too perfect, likely due to the fact he is not truly remorseful, at least not on an emotional level. Dreier didn’t care about his employees losing their jobs, and I can imagine he doesn’t feel repentant for the hedge funds he stole for or the clients he impersonated, especially after using their his clients’ own boardrooms to conduct the schemes to feign legitimacy
Simon’s true success in the film is his handling of Dreier’s personal relationships, and attempting to break through to him on an emotional level.
In this scenario, Dreier’s strongest moment in the film is his emotional vulnerability when questioned about his 88-year old mother whom at the time was paying tens of thousands of dollars to pay Dreier’s private security while under house arrest.
Simon presented me with a couple of notable elements that the audience needs to keep in mind. “We’re dealing with an unreliable narrator. The one area where I believe that Dreier did have some emotional connection was to his family. That’s where cracks in the armor could be exposed. But as soon as the crack would start to show, he would want to pull back. Look, he’s a son, he’s a father, and he’s a brother. When he contemplates what his crimes did to his family—that’s where it starts to hit him.”
But, why then? Were Dreier’s dealings motivated simply by success and the recognition of that success? Wouldn’t being locked up or ending up as a fugitive be counterproductive to the image he was trying to sustain? Was it the game of risk that he was engaging in that exhilarated him to continue?
I posed these questions to Simon, who quickly pointed out that Dreier had not “confess(ed) that being the case. Dreier absolutely got gratification out of, and it’s why he kept doing it, it was the result.”
“I do think the so-called entrepreneurialism of the fraud excited him. He wasn’t going to say it did but moreover it was the recognition money allowed him to have, to hang around with athletes and celebrities, to be the big man on campus and be recognized. That’s what he so desperately wanted and that’s the universality of what his story, of what this portrait represents. “
It’s an interesting summation that characterizes the documentary or ‘portrait’ as Simon refers to it. One that finds its place at a crossroads between the visually dark resume of a man and his attempts to rationalize his behavior by delineating himself as a contemplative character who understands, and accepts his wrongdoings.
But how is Simon able to remain unbiased at the helm? “I would say going into filming that was certainly my biggest concern. I called in my copilot on the production, my cinematographer Bob Richmond and every day before we would enter into this guild, this cage of house arrest, we would go over the days agenda, and I would say to him, ‘If you don’t see or feel me pushing hard on any issues, make sure you prod me and/or jump in yourself.’”
What would the audience take from the film? Would some feel like I did, questioning his motives; or would others tap into Dreier’s story of remorse and feel twinges of sympathy?
“I think that there is a certain percentage of the audience that he does convince, there’s a percentage of the audience that he absolutely does not convince—and probably irritates more than that, and then there’s a third percent of the audience that they catch themselves feeling sympathy for him; and get frustrated and confused of why they’re feeling sympathy for this guy who did such an awful thing. I said that’s what makes this film unique, I want to say that’s the goal in the film, for audiences to be conflicted. I want them to judge this guy and make their own decisions and I don’t expect universality of opinion.”
Unraveled will be released on Friday in select theaters and nationwide on VOD.
Check out more at www.unraveledthefilm.com