Why the perp walk for Tannin and Cioffi?

June 20, 2008, 2:33 PM UTC
Fortune

Another batch of alleged miscreants was arrested yesterday, swept up in the subprime hedge fund situation, which is the worst financial scandal of the decade, unless you can think of another, which I would be happy to hear.

The thing that struck me was the whole perp walk thing. Yesterday it was the two dudes from Bear Stearns, Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi. I’m sure you saw it all on CNBC already. Two well-dressed guys trying with as much dignity as possible to look nonchalant as they are marched, handcuffed, into a hoosegow. If this was the 1950s, they would have had their fedoras neatly draped over the shackles. But men don’t wear hats anymore, unless you count baseball caps and that wouldn’t have really done the trick anyhow.

In passing let me just mention that I think Mr. Tannin and Mr. Cioffi handled their perp walks very well. I have often considered what I would do if I were accused of a crime and paraded like a prize sow down a walk of shame, and I’m just not sure. Crying is bad. Makes you look guilty. Smiling is bad. Makes you look guilty. A thoughtful expression, without a tie, is perhaps best, even though that also makes you look guilty.

Wait a minute. How is it possible NOT to look guilty on a perp walk? The answer is… it’s not.

So isn’t the perp walk essentially punishment BEFORE the benefit of a trial?

So I guess my question is… why the perp walk? Did the several hundred other alleged wrongdoers who were arrested yesterday have to endure it? Were the two going anyplace? Weren’t they in fact surrendering to authorities? Did somebody expect one or both to escape, running like mad through the streets, taking the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building to lob themselves onto the heads of passing pedestrians? Were the media alerted to the time and place of the perp walk, to get the maximum publicity value for prosecutors from the event? Of course they were.

Who else should get one, if these two alleged sleazoids meritied the full treatment? Can’t you think of some? Sure you can. If you’re having a problem, go back and Google “subprime mortgage,” pick out a few of the more dramatic examples of lousy financial management bordering on fiscal irresponsibility… many of those guys are exiting with exit bundles the size of a goiter. Inside traders are routinely harvested. Many have gone on to highly successful afterlives and are quoted with respect in the Wall Street Journal every week or hailed as great philanthropists. Why no perp walk for them?

How about the individuals responsible for the ethnic cleansing of middle Europe? Did you see any of them in a perp walk? Or the former Nazis who have, over the years, been quietly deported back to some jolly fatherland? Or the latest multi-millionaire musician indicted in some violent act on their spouse or artistic competitor?

If he is indicted, will Eliot Spitzer get one when he surrenders to the forces of moral rectitude? 

The only full-fledged perp walks I can recall in the recent past are for 1) madams of high-priced call girl services, 2) Paris Hilton and 3) white collar doofuses who were caught after decades of Federal, State and Local inattention allowed many of the crimes they are alleged to have committed.

So what’s the story? Whyfore? Whereas?

The Brooklyn prosecutor who held the press conference after the perp walk was very stern. He outlined all the crimes of which Tannin and Cioffi (among many, many others) are accused. He then virtually scolded his audience, making sure we, the public, kept in mind that people in this matter were innocent until proven guilty and should have every right to establish their innocence in a court of law.

So then… why the perp walk, huh?