NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I write this column with hesitancy. Is it really advisable to discuss the top five corporate scandals of 2010 when there are still 11 days to go?
Some of the biggest unpleasant surprises of past years have taken place in December, with Bernie Madoff's unwinding being the best example. The great Tsunami of 2004 took place on Dec. 26. Is a late-year corporate tsunami awaiting us?
In selecting this list of the Big Five Corporate Scandals of 2010, my aim was to select the ones that have -- or should have -- the most impact, and which point to a particular facet of corporate behavior. So, without further ado:
: This burst on the corporate scandal scene only last week, and is an example of the oldest and most cherished forms of human chicanery: the snake oil salesman. Instead of worthless potions sold from the back of horse carts, we have a multinational, publicly traded company,
, selling worthless potions from millions of retail outlets around the world. Now, personally, I'm a fan of their Activia "probiotic" yogurt. But not the tactics they've used to peddle the stuff.
Dannon has been
about its yogurt, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC said "Dannon claimed in nationwide advertising campaigns that DanActive helps prevent colds and flu, and that one daily serving of Activia relieves temporary irregularity and helps with 'slow intestinal transit time.' In television, Internet and print ads, as well as on product packaging, Dannon also stated that there was scientific proof to back up these claims." That's lying. That's fraud. So how come all Dannon has to do is cough up $21 million?
: Some companies aren't happy with simply making stuff. They feel the need to project their boardrooms' moral depravity on to the world at large. The best example of that is Hewlett-Packard, manufacturer of printers, toner and
morally obtuse corporate executives
. In August, CEO Mark Hurd quit amid allegations that he fibbed on his expense account and sexually harassed people. Now, if any of that were actually punishable, the jails of the nation would be filled with pinstripes.
But this is not about some corporate misdemeanors. This is actually H-P proving that it isn't the same slimeball company that engaged in an extensive campaign of
four years ago. (It's also H-P using a pretext, pardon the expression, when it had other motives
, according to one theory.)
The real scandal is this: Why was a private investigator the only person fed to the wolves in the H-P spying scandal, and everyone else let off scott-free? Why was Hurd, who was involved in the scandal, never charged? Former CEO Patricia Dunn was arrested and charged with felonies, but is now walking the streets, the charges dropped. That's an ongoing, never-ending scandal. But I'm sure H-P will give us more.
Lehman Brothers Repo 105
: No case vomiting forth from the financial crisis has more acutely shown the impotence of the Securities and Exchange Commission, especially when it comes to the SEC's glaring weak spot: accounting chicanery. This has been portrayed as an example of Wall Street going haywire in the period leading up to the crash, which it was, but, more fundamentally, it was yet another form of corporate book-cooking about which the SEC is simply not up to snuff.
This Enron-style accounting gimmickry was revealed not in an avenue that you would ordinarily expect for large-scale fraud -- an indictment or at least SEC charges -- but in a report by the Lehman trustee, Anton R. Valukas. When the Repo 105 fraud was revealed, some speculated it would be
. Fat chance. The U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, is too busy chasing down insider traders and other comparative small fry. Not that there's anything wrong with rounding up comparative small fry. But it seems lame when the big offenders are running around at liberty.
: No listing of 2010's corporate scandals is complete without the big mess, which was as much in the boardroom of BP PLC as it was off the coast of Louisiana.
BP has done it all: mind-boggling negligence that caused the initial fire and oil spill, world-class arrogance in defying local authorities in cleaning it up, and a corporate spin campaign that surely must rank as one of the most infuriating in history. If there was an Academy Award ceremony for corporate wrongdoing, the feckless leaders of this grimy company would be jumping up and down at the award dinner like jack 'n the boxes, constantly running up to the stage to accept the accolades of their peers. I can just see Master of Ceremonies Bernie Madoff handing Oscars to BP in numerous categories, and it definitely would be an odds-on favorite for the coveted Worst Company honors.
No, I'll make it official: BP is the Worst Company of 2010. Stand up, you loathsome
, and take a bow.
: Just as the financial crisis was beginning to fade away, as bankers enjoyed their latest round of bonuses and the rest of us enjoyed the latest rounds of layoffs, the banks of our great country proved that they are second to none. When it comes to lying, cheating and stealing, they are truly the leaders of the free world. Seriously, folks, what country in the world has bankers who routinely forge documents, and bring people to court to take their houses without having a right to do so? Gosh, it's enough to make a fella proud of the free enterprise system.
Foreclosuregate, like all great scandals, was a group effort. There are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which provided lists of foreclosure mills that did the actual dirty work. There are the banks who did the deed, among them
Bank of America
. Is this being investigated? Why, of course! Every attorney general on this side of the Atlantic is
Is anything going to happen in this ongoing mess and whatever else slithers forth in 2011? Don't hold your breath. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just overturned a case involving the
, making the job of prosecutors harder than ever. Sure, Congress can pass laws making it easier to prosecute corporate fraud. But that's not even on the radar screen. And even if it was, there would have to be prosecutors who have the gumption to take on well-heeled, influential defendants.
Yep, it looks like 2011 is going to be a banner year for corporate fraud. Stay tuned.
Gary Weiss has covered Wall Street wrongdoing for almost a quarter century. His coverage of stock fraud at BusinessWeek won many awards, and included a cover story, �The Mob on Wall Street,� which exposed mob infiltration of brokerages. He uncovered the Salomon Brothers bond-trading scandal, and wrote extensively on the dangers posed by hedge funds, Internet fraud and out-of-control leverage. He was a contributing editor at Conde Nast Porfolio, writing about the people most intimately involved in the financial crisis, from Timothy Geithner to Bernard Madoff. His book "Born to Steal" (Warner Books: 2003), described the Mafia's takeover of brokerage houses in the 1990s. "Wall Street Versus America" (Portfolio: 2006) was an account of investor rip-offs. He blogs at garyweiss.blogspot.com.