Smooth Criminal

Dunlap Cannon III was once the top real estate attorney in Memphis. He belonged to a country club and had a skybox at the local sports arena. He was the son of a prominent Memphis banker, and after 20 years of professional experience, he was representing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the city's mayor, and every major lending institution in Memphis. By his own estimate, Cannon had more than 150 real estate transactions going through his escrow account in an average month. "That's a lot of money," Cannon says. "It seemed like everything I touched turned to gold."

Then one day, after a "hot" stock tip went cold, Cannon dipped into that escrow account to cover his losses. And so began a downward spiral of risky investments and Ponzi-esque check-cashing schemes designed to hide the missing money. Eventually, Cannon had dug himself into a $5-million hole from which he finally realized he could never emerge. He pled guilty to bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, and embezzlement of government funds, and spent a total of 36 months in federal prison.

These days, Cannon is making a positive contribution to society; he teaches continuing education courses to accountants and attorneys on how to recognize financial fraud. He also gives speeches on how to identify what he calls "the classic defrauder." "The backbone of my speech is the story of how someone can be a successful attorney, be a graduate of Vanderbilt University, can come from a good family, but because he occupies a position of trust, because he has access to all that money, he can take a wrong turn," Cannon says. "It's the story of the fox in the henhouse."

Cannon tailors the technical content of his speech—the specifics of how he juggled more than half a billion dollars over six years—to the relative proficiency of his audience. And he always includes a question-and-answer period. "I tell them what they need to watch out for, and I explain how, invariably, indiscretion starts out small and grows into what's called the 'triangle of fraud': a need fed by opportunity, ultimately followed by rationalizations about how you can fit this into your moral code. In the latter stages, one's ability to rationalize takes on almost mythic proportions."

When he first started telling his story to audiences, Cannon says he was "semi-terrified." Now, after five years on the circuit, he says he's always surprised to see his audience's support for what he's trying to do by explaining time and again how he executed his crimes. "It is not an unsatisfying experience [to tell my story]," Cannon says. "But there is always the shame factor. There's no pride in standing there in front of those people and saying, 'I stole five million dollars.' "