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Murdoch Beats Banks in Ethics Department

Stocks in this article: NWS GS MS JPM OSTK HPQ CQB

There was a fair-sized ruckus when Goldman Sachs (GS) was found to have collaborated with John Paulson, the hedge fund manager, to design an asset-backed security that Paulson intended to short while it was being touted to Goldman clients. The "consequence" for Goldman was a $550 million penalty in settlement of Securities and Exchange Commission charges, which wasn't sizable enough to cause any actual harm to the company. More recently, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) was found to have done precisely the same thing, and paid a far smaller SEC penalty, $153.6 million. But where was the moral outrage in either instance? Where was the imposition of actual pain, actual consequences? There wasn't any.

Ditto when Morgan Stanley (MS) recently settled a municipal bond bid-rigging case by paying a $211 million penalty. When corporations open up their checkbooks, it seems, journalists' eyes glaze over. Morgan pointed out in a statement that it "does not tolerate anticompetitive activity" -- except when it's caught, it might have added.

Nobody in the press pointed out that Goldman and JPMorgan committed serious ethical violations. What they did was simply wrong. The word was almost never mentioned in the context of their behavior, which was usually framed in terms of strict legality and the pragmatic impact on the firms.

Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) similarly escaped much in the way of consequences for its own spying scandal in which HP's chairperson, Patricia Dunn, and its general counsel conducted a Nixonian hunt for people leaking information to journalists. The company recruited private detectives and engaged in pretexting, a type of spying that uses lies and deception. Criminal charges against Dunn were dismissed, and the most that ever happened was that a private detective pleaded guilty to identity theft charges. The company itself skidded off into the sunset, the stench of its unethical conduct having no lasting impact.

An even grimier pretexting scandal involving Overstock.com (OSTK) -- I know a lot about this because I was one of the targets -- also went nowhere. An employee of Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, who has since been put back on the company payroll, used pretexting to invade the privacy of journalists on Facebook, as part of a years-long campaign by the company to intimidate its critics and bully journalists. Some negative publicity eked out, but no lasting consequences. Indeed, journalists have gotten so used to unethical conduct from Overstock and Byrne that it just isn't news anymore. So when a blogger revealed on Monday that Overstock disclosed in a court case that it had posted deceptive pricing information on its Web site, it was ignored by the press.

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