1. Whistle Stop

When it comes to the song and dance that is corporate public relations,

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

still has two left feet.

Take the flap over former exec Tom Coughlin. The well-compensated vice chairman left the board last month after Wal-Mart said he padded his expense account by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Coughlin's lawyers claim he sought reimbursement for work on the company's secret antiunion campaign. Wal-Mart says that's not true and strenuously denies it has illegally hindered union organizing drives.

Last Friday,

The Wall Street Journal

ran a story that seemed to confirm the company's account. The paper said it had reviewed documents detailing how Coughlin, who made more than $6 million last year, had goodies such as alligator boots and steel dog pens paid for with checks from Wal-Mart. In those cases Coughlin had underlings submit false invoices, the

Journal

reported.

Wal-Mart used the episode to stress its ethical standards. "If someone asks you to do something that you know is wrong -- whether that is a buddy or a supervisor or Lee Scott -- you must have the courage to say, 'No,'" CEO Lee Scott said in a companywide broadcast, the

Journal

reported. "We all have to do this, no matter our role or position within the company."

With Wal-Mart going to great lengths to show that it cares about workers and communities and ethics, you'd think Coughlin's demise would make an in-house celebrity of Jared Bowen. He's the 31-year-old Wal-Mart vice president who flagged his superiors on Coughlin's alleged misdeeds.

After all, it's not everyone who has the guts to blow the whistle on his powerful boss.

But as usual with Wal-Mart, you'd be wrong. Bowen, who didn't return a call seeking comment, was fired the day after Scott's companywide speech.

Wal-Mart declines to comment on personnel matters, but the

Journal

reports that Wal-Mart told Bowen it had "a general lack of confidence" in him.

You can kind of see why some people feel the same way about Wal-Mart.

2. Death and Taxes

Some people don't like Eliot Spitzer's campaign against former

American International Group

(AIG) - Get Report

chief Hank Greenberg. But where they see reckless abandon, we see admirable restraint.

The debate was fueled by Spitzer's comments this week in a Sunday morning interview show. The crusading New York attorney general said on "ABC News: This Week" that AIG's accounting missteps under Greenberg amounted to fraud.

"The evidence is overwhelming that these were transactions created for the purpose of deceiving the market," Spitzer told host George Stephanopoulos. "We call that fraud. It is deceptive, it is wrong. It is illegal."

The comments struck us at the Five Dumbest Things lab as unusual. After all, no charges have been filed against Greenberg, whose lawyers say he did nothing wrong. And government officials, we've noticed, tend not to comment on their investigations.

A private lawyer group calling itself the New York Council of Defense Lawyers points out as much in a letter this week to media outlets. "The self-restraint of powerful law enforcement officials is never more important than when heightened media interest arises," the group writes in criticizing Spitzer for his remarks. Prosecutors must bite their tongues, the lawyers say, in the interest of fairness, integrity and probity.

Spitzer's office stands by his comments. "Mr. Spitzer simply stated the obvious, which is that wrongdoing had occured -- as evidenced by the company's own admission," spokesman Darren Dopp notes in an email. "He then described the options in the case, which are that it might be pursued civilly or criminally. Nobody's rights were undermined by the comments. Nor was it unfair to say it."

Still, we think the critics may have overlooked another exchange Sunday that illustrates Spitzer's judicious approach.

Asked if he was intent on indicting Greenberg, Spitzer said not necessarily. Then, batting down some

recent remarks by Greenberg lawyer David Boies that seemed to downplay the seriousness of the accounting questions, Spitzer hastened to add:

"I'll agree with Mr. Boies about one thing," Spitzer said. "It's not a capital offense -- this relates to money. It could be civil. It could be criminal.

But it's not capital, meaning the death penalty."

We're sure Hank Greenberg is breathing a sigh of relief.

3. Morgantown

CEO Phil Purcell is back in the stew at

Morgan Stanley

(MWD)

after the latest

top-level defections from the financial services firm.

Luckily, readers of the Five Dumbest Things have put together an appetizing menu of possible successors.

Last week, we rang the bell for

Purcell replacement candidates. With autographed copies of Jim Cramer's

Real Money: Sane Investing in an Insane World dangling like a juicy carrot, the responses tumbled in.

Going strictly by the numbers, the leading candidates include former Morgan Stanley exec John Mack and onetime stockbroker Martha Stewart, of

Martha Stewart Living

(MSO)

fame. Other fan faves included ex-

Hewlett-Packard

(HPQ) - Get Report

chief Carly Fiorina and

Disney's

(DIS) - Get Report

Michael Eisner.

Stewart's backers are particularly well-spoken. "She's got industry experience, CEO experience and prison experience -- an unbeatable combination!" says reader Richard Nadeau Jr., referring to the rash of recent corporate scandals unrelated to Morgan Stanley. "I would like to propose Martha Stewart, because she would refurbish that

seat," adds Michael Kuss, referring to the Five Dumbest Lab's illustration of Purcell's throne.

Other candidates win high praise too, though. "Alan Greenspan will be available soon and has much experience explaining away bad performance," notes John Boren. And why not Bono of U2, asks Colleen King, pointing out that it "seems the whole world thinks he can do anything."

Meanwhile, Purcell isn't the only guy bemused by his plight at the hands of former Morgan Stanley partners. Fortunately, reader Craig Lindsay has a solution. Who better than disgraced Sunbeam chief Chainsaw Al Dunlap, he asks, "to get rid of these pesky cranky folks? He won't be bothered by details like who's best to run the company."

These are all excellent choices, and we thank everyone for participating. A big thank-you also goes out to Jim Cramer -- who garnered a few votes himself, by the way -- for generously donating and signing the books that went out to 10 lucky voters.

But when it comes to running Morgan Stanley, reader John R. Roesset has what looks like the winning formula. In addition to a sterling record, his candidate boasts something a turnaround CEO must have: a recognizable name (we'll get to that in a minute).

The exec-to-be, in this case, is

a writer and actor who boasts extensive international experience, having studied radio drama in Canada and stagecraft in Southern Rhodesia -- "both valuable skills for handling the challenges of reinvigorating the firm," Roesset says. "As further evidence of his relevant knowledge, just look at the titles of some of his books:

The Debt Collector

,

Tobin Takes Off

,

Tobin in Trouble

and

Tobin for Hire

."

That's a good-looking resume under any circumstances. But at a venerable firm like Morgan Stanley, you've got to be the perfect fit for the job -- and there this candidate stands alone.

"From his name alone," Roesset says, "you know

Stanley Morgan is the man to reverse the troubles at Morgan Stanley."

4. Card-Carrying

The way it's been going in Detroit, General Motors (GM) - Get Report seems like the last outfit that would have to fend off identity thieves.

After all, the news has been getting worse and worse at the big automaker for more than a month now.

First GM slashed its earnings guidance, citing weak sales. Then rating agencies trimmed the company's debt rating, pushing up GM's borrowing costs. Lately, investigators have started examining the company's accounting and disclosure policies.

But when it rains, it pours. This week, The Wall Street Journal reports, some unidentified hoodlums made off with the credit card information of 180,000 Polo Ralph Lauren (RL) - Get Report shoppers. Any clue what cards those people were using?

Why, the GM MasterCard, of course.

Now, GM's not to blame for this incident. British banking giant

HSBC

(HBC)

-- which manages 6 million GM MasterCard-branded cards -- is the one telling people they need to trade in their plastic to prevent possible fraud. The

Journal

reports that Visa is also investigating a recent security breach, though details of that incident haven't been disclosed.

For its part, Polo says it is confident it has taken care of the issue.

"Since being informed in fall 2004 that some credit card information of its customers may have been misappropriated, Polo Ralph Lauren has worked diligently with law enforcement officials and credit card companies to determine the extent of the compromise," spokeswoman Nancy Murray says. "The company did learn that certain credit card information may have been retained and stored in its point-of-sale software. The company took immediate steps to purge this data and cure the problem. The company is confident that its credit card system is secure and that our customers' credit card information is protected."

Unfortunately, the Polo caper is far from unique.

Reed Elsevier

(RUK)

unit LexisNexis admitted this week that 10 times as many people as earlier estimated may have been affected by a data breach there.

Yes, we're afraid it looks like identity theft is doomed to be a

hot-button issue everywhere -- even at GM.

5. Timber

Retailers have been known to invent lame excuses to explain away their lousy numbers. But you really have to hand it to Dollar Tree (DLTR) - Get Report.

The Chesapeake, Va., discount retailer warned in a recent filing that fiscal first-quarter sales would fall short of estimates. In addition to lamenting the inevitable bad weather and the omnipresent "difficult comparisions," though, Dollar Tree came up with an innovative new culprit: the lunar calendar.

That's right, Dollar Tree blamed its quarterly sales slowdown on this year's earlier Easter -- even though the holiday took place in the company's fiscal first quarter in both years.

We weren't able to link up with a Dollar Tree rep for further explanation, but the company's filing states:

    Our previous sales guidance for the first quarter of fiscal year 2005, encompassing the reporting period of January 30, 2005 to April 30, 2005, was for total sales to be in the range of $770 to $790 million. With Easter falling in March this year, two weeks earlier than last year and difficult weather conditions during the quarter, we are now forecasting sales to be in the range of $740 to $755 million. The company experienced positive comparable store sales results for the first nine weeks of the quarter and while the quarter does not end until April 30, 2005, post Easter selling has been lower than planned against the difficult comparisons to last year.

It can be tough to keep track of when Easter's going to be. Sure, it falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21 each year -- but who knows when that's going to be?

Maybe Dollar Tree execs should pick up an extra calendar or two before next spring rolls around.

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