Like scores of other readers across America, I was recently enraptured by the Silicon Valley nightmare tale of Theranos, the healthcare startup that promised to revolutionize blood testing and seduced notable investors, large pharmacy partners, and hopeful customers alike. It never delivered on its promise, blew through hundreds of millions of dollars, and harmed countless livelihoods along the way.
Instances of corporate deceit and fraud like this aren’t new. When power and money are at stake, people often trade in their consciences for more immediately gratifying rewards — and face the consequences when their elaborate schemes spiral out of control.
Theranos now joins names like Bernie Madoff and Enron, cemented in history and the syllabi of business-ethics courses as lessons of questionable business practices that you don’t want to believe took place. You often hear only about the devastating result of these scandals, but these books bring you back to the beginning and weave fair, thoughtful tales about how they all transpired.
For a fascinating and often horrifying look into how not to run a business, read these 16 books about some of the biggest corporate scandals and scams of our time.
Book descriptions provided by Amazon and edited for length.
“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyou
In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier.
Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work. A riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley.
“The Wizard of Lies” by Diana B. Henriques
Who is Bernie Madoff, and how did he pull off the biggest Ponzi scheme in history? These questions have fascinated people ever since the news broke about the respected New York financier who swindled his friends, relatives, and other investors out of $65 billion through a fraud that lasted for decades. Many have speculated about what might have happened or what must have happened, but no reporter has been able to get the full story — until now.
A true-life financial thriller, “The Wizard of Lies” contrasts Madoff’s remarkable rise on Wall Street, where he became one of the country’s most trusted and respected traders, with dramatic scenes from his accelerating slide toward self-destruction.
“Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron” by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind
Like its subject, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is ambitious, grand in scope, and ruthless in its dealings. Unlike Enron, the Texas-based energy giant that has come to represent the post-millennium collapse of 1990s go-go corporate culture, it’s also ultimately successful. Penned by Fortune scribes Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the 400-page-plus chronicle of the scandal digs deep inside the numbers while, wisely, maintaining focus on the “smart guys” deep-frying the books.
The likes of paternal but disengaged CEO Ken Lay, cutthroat man-behind-the-curtain Jeff Skilling, and ethically blind numbers whiz Andy Fastow vividly come to life as they make a mockery of conventional accounting practices and grow increasingly arrogant and bind to their collective hubris.
“The Spider Network” by David Enrich
The Wall Street Journal’s award-winning business reporter unveils the bizarre and sinister story of how a math genius named Tom Hayes, a handful of outrageous confederates, and a deeply corrupt banking system ignited one of the greatest financial scandals in history.
In 2006, an oddball group of bankers, traders and brokers from some of the world’s largest financial institutions made a startling realization: Libor — the London interbank offered rate, which determines interest rates on trillions in loans worldwide — was set daily by a small group of easily manipulated functionaries. Eventually known as the “Spider Network,” Hayes’s circle generated untold riches — until it all unraveled in spectacularly vicious, backstabbing fashion.
“Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal” by Ken Besinger
The definitive, shocking account of the FIFA scandal — the biggest international corruption case of recent years, spearheaded by US investigators, involving dozens of countries, and implicating nearly every aspect of the world’s most popular sport, soccer, including its biggest event, the World Cup.
The FIFA case began small, boosted by an IRS agent’s review of an American soccer official’s tax returns. But that humble investigation eventually led to a huge worldwide corruption scandal that crossed continents and reached the highest levels of the soccer’s world governing body in Switzerland.
“Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope
In 2009, a chubby, mild-mannered graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business named Jho Low set in motion a fraud of unprecedented gall and magnitude — one that would come to symbolize the next great threat to the global financial system. Over a decade, Low, with the aid of Goldman Sachs and others, siphoned billions of dollars from an investment fund — right under the nose of global financial industry watchdogs.
By early 2019, with his yacht and private jet reportedly seized by authorities and facing criminal charges in Malaysia and in the United States, Low had become an international fugitive, even as the U.S. Department of Justice continued its investigation.
“The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis
The real story of the crash began in bizarre feeder markets where the sun doesn’t shine and the SEC doesn’t dare, or bother, to tread: the bond and real estate derivative markets where geeks invent impenetrable securities to profit from the misery of lower- and middle-class Americans who can’t pay their debts. The smart people who understood what was or might be happening were paralyzed by hope and fear; in any case, they weren’t talking.
Out of a handful of unlikely-really unlikely-heroes, Lewis fashions a story as compelling and unusual as any of his earlier bestsellers, proving yet again that he is the finest and funniest chronicler of our time.
“American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road” by Nick Bilton
In 2011, a twenty-six-year-old libertarian programmer named Ross Ulbricht launched the ultimate free market: the Silk Road, a clandestine Web site hosted on the Dark Web where anyone could trade anything — drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, poisons — free of the government’s watchful eye.
It’s a story of the boy next door’s ambition gone criminal, spurred on by the clash between the new world of libertarian-leaning, anonymous, decentralized Web advocates and the old world of government control, order, and the rule of law. Filled with unforgettable characters and capped by an astonishing climax, “American Kingpin” might be dismissed as too outrageous for fiction. But it’s all too real.
“Black Edge” by Sheelah Kolhatkar
In hedge fund circles, Steven A. Cohen was revered as one of the greatest traders who ever lived. But that image was shattered when his fund, SAC Capital, became the target of a seven-year government investigation. Prosecutors labeled SAC a “magnet for market cheaters” whose culture encouraged the relentless pursuit of “edge”— and even “black edge,” which is inside information — and the firm was ultimately indicted and pleaded guilty to charges related to a vast insider trading scheme.
Cohen, himself, however, was never charged. “Black Edge” is a riveting legal thriller that raises urgent questions about the power and wealth of those who sit at the pinnacle of high finance and how they have reshaped the economy.
“Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco” by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar
The fight to control RJR Nabisco during October and November of 1988 was more than just the largest takeover in Wall Street history. Marked by brazen displays of ego not seen in American business for decades, it became the high point of a new gilded age and its repercussions are still being felt. The tale remains the ultimate story of greed and glory — a story and a cast of characters that determined the course of global business and redefined how deals would be done and fortunes made in the decades to come.
Burrough and Helyar provide an unprecedentedly detailed look at how financial operations at the highest levels are conducted but also a richly textured social history of wealth at the twilight of the Reagan era.
“The Big Lie: Spying, Scandal, and Ethical Collapse at Hewlett Packard” by Anthony Bianco
In 2003, HP began a transition from the family management style of its founders. It made a bold statement by hiring as its new CEO the most visible female business executive in America: Carly Fiorina. Less than two years later, the board fired her, amid accusations of imperiousness that had begun damagingly to leak into the business media.
Anthony Bianco gets to heart of the ethical morass at HP that ended up damning the entire board that created it. Almost every American has an interest in how the country’s greatest corporations are run, and the character of the people entrusted with them. The story of Hewlett-Packard reflects power struggles that shape corporate America and is an alarming morality tale for our times.
“Too Big to Fail” by Andrew Ross Sorkin
Andrew Ross Sorkin delivers the first true behind-the-scenes, moment-by-moment account of how the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression developed into a global tsunami. From inside the corner office at Lehman Brothers to secret meetings in South Korea, and the corridors of Washington, “Too Big to Fail” is the definitive story of the most powerful men and women in finance and politics grappling with success and failure, ego and greed, and, ultimately, the fate of the world’s economy.
“Healthsouth: The Wagon to Disaster” by Aaron Beam and Chris Warner
Corporate greed is the Black Plague of the modern financial world threatening America’s ability to maintain free market capitalism in an increasingly distrusting, changing, and socialistic world economy. Told by former co-founder and CFO Aaron Beam, it’s the untold story of HealthSouth, one of America’s most successful health care companies and consequently, the perpetrator of one of its biggest frauds in history.
How big was the fraud? In 2003, just before news of the crime broke in the mainstream media, HealthSouth paid more money in taxes to the federal government than it legitimately earned the previous year. Beam takes the reader from HealthSouth’s humble beginnings, through its meteoric rise and to its disastrous revelation, subsequent trial and his three-month incarceration in a federal prison.
“Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal” by Jack Ewing
In mid-2015, Volkswagen proudly reached its goal of surpassing Toyota as the world’s largest automaker. A few months later, the EPA disclosed that Volkswagen had installed software in 11 million cars that deceived emissions-testing mechanisms. By early 2017, VW had settled with American regulators and car owners for $20 billion, with additional lawsuits still looming.
“Faster, Higher, Farther” rips the lid off the conspiracy and reveals how the succeed-at-all-costs mentality prevalent in modern boardrooms led to one of corporate history’s farthest-reaching cases of fraud — with potentially devastating consequences.
“Taking Down the Lion: The Triumphant Rise and Tragic Fall of Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski” by Catherine S. Neal
As the widely-admired CEO of Tyco International, Dennis Kozlowski grew a little-known New Hampshire conglomerate into a global giant. In a stunning series of events, Kozlowski suddenly lost his job along with his favored public status when he was indicted by legendary Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau — it was an inglorious end to an otherwise brilliant career.
In an unfiltered view of corporate America, Catherine Neal pulls back the curtain to reveal a world of big business, ambition, money, and an epidemic of questionable ethics that infected not only business dealings but extended to attorneys, journalists, politicians, and the criminal justice system.
“Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower” by Cynthia Cooper
Former WorldCom Chief Audit Executive Cynthia Cooper recounts for the first time her journey from her close family upbringing in a small Mississippi town, to working motherhood and corporate success, to the pressures of becoming a whistleblower, to being named one of Time’s 2002 Persons of the Year. She also provides a rare insider’s glimpse into the spectacular rise and fall of WorldCom, a telecom titan, the darling of Wall Street, and a Cinderella story for Mississippi.
This book reminds us all that ethical decision-making is not forged at the crossroads of major events but starts in childhood, “decision by decision and brick by brick.”