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Corporate Conspiracies and Complex Secrets: Structure and Perception of the Insull Scheme in 1930s Chicago1

Studies of secrecy argue that criminal conspiracies are discovered when they fail to control the leakage of incriminating information. Yet, corporate crimes often remain secret even after crucial information has become public. To explain such cases, this article shifts attention from secret keepers to their audiences and proposes a relational theory of complex secrets, whose discovery requires finding and assembling sets of information relative to a guiding conception of the whole—a gestalt. To illustrate this theory, the article studies the Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Samuel Insull’s utility empire in the 1920s and 1930s. An analysis of the search patterns of two failed and two successful investigations in the network of Insull companies reveals why early investigations failed: they relied on assumptions about the system that rendered the internal relations between the information fragments unlikely. Conspiracies can thus hide in plain sight by creating a situation of systematic ambiguity for their audiences.