Let's be honest: There weren't too many people rooting for Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.
top honchos were the poster boys for corporate crime. While Enron may not have been the biggest corporate fraud on record, it surely was the most stunning. The collapse of Enron in 2001 came to symbolize all of the excess of the stock market mania of the late 1990s and the corporate greed it generated.
The conviction of Lay and Skilling on a host of securities fraud charges was a measure of justice for every investor who lost money betting on the fallen energy firm's stock. But it also was a bit of revenge for any investor who has been seduced by a smooth-talking CEO selling a stock that's been propped up by lots of hot air and accounting gimmicks.
Once again, legal prognosticators and market pundits say the convictions of Lay and Skilling, just like last year's fraud conviction of former
chief Bernie Ebbers, will send a strong message of deterrence to corporate CEOs. The jury verdict will let corporate chieftains know that there's a high price to pay for misleading investors -- be it by cooking a company's books or looting the corporate treasury for personal gain.
"This sends a message to corporate America and Wall Street that lying to investors is a serious crime deserving of harsh punishment,'' says Jacob Zamansky, a securities lawyer who often represents investors.
Still, nearly five years after the fraud at Enron, how much have things really changed in the executive offices of U.S. corporations? Sometimes, it seems, not that much, especially with the whiff of other corporate scandals -- both past and present -- still lingering in the air.
Over the past several weeks, Federal prosecutors and securities regulators have found at least two dozen companies where officials may have improperly backdated stock options for top executives in order to ensure a maximum payday.
The still-unfolding inquiry has found that officials with
-- to name a few -- might have gone back in time and picked the low point for their stocks to price their stock options. If true, this maneuver all but guaranteed that any executive getting those options would receive the biggest payday possible.
It's not clear yet if backdating options is illegal. But backdating options to maximize an executive's personal profit is the epitome of corporate greed and running roughshod over shareholders.
Earlier this week, regulators slapped a $400 million fine against
, claiming that former top managers of the mortgage finance giant manipulated earnings to increase their hefty annual bonuses. The regulators found that the accounting abuses at Fannie continued through 2003, nearly two full years after Enron's December 2001 bankruptcy filing.
collapsed in scandal after it was revealed that the commodities and derivatives brokerage's former chief executive was hiding up to $750 million in bad debts in a separate company. The discovery of the scheme led to the filing of criminal fraud charges against former CEO Phillip Bennett.
Even more shocking, the alleged debt-hiding scheme at Refco was uncovered just two months after the nearly 40-year-old brokerage had gone public in a big $585 million IPO. Federal prosecutors charge that one of Bennett's motivations was making sure the initial public offering went off without a hitch so he could cash out with an enormous multimillion-dollar payday.
"I don't know if there has been a big change in behavior,'' says Jill Fisch, a securities professor with Fordham University School of Law. "What we are talking about here are people who've spent their lives taking risks. They are worth millions. Yes, they can go to jail. But they are used to living in the fast lane.''
Fisch says guilty verdicts like the ones handed down against Lay and Skilling clearly have an impact on corporate boards. An outside director of a company, even a well-compensated one, isn't going to take the same kind of risks as a CEO. But it's not the same when it comes to a CEO whose entire fortune may rest on the continued success of a company.
In other words, it all comes down to greed. If an executive thinks he can make enough money by crossing over the line, the temptation to do wrong will always be there.