NEW YORK — Just when it seemed the credibility of corporate America couldn’t sink any lower, another top business leader faces charges of white-collar crime.
The arrest of former ImClone Systems CEO Samuel Waksal on charges of using inside information to tip off relatives to sell company stock came only a week after Tyco International Ltd.’s longtime chief executive was charged with trying to avoid sales taxes on pricey works of art.
Experts say the moves show prosecutors are becoming bolder about taking corporate leaders to task for crimes the public didn’t care much about until recently. Politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon.
A day after Samuel Waksal was led away from his Manhattan apartment by FBI agents at 6:30 in the morning, Congress extended an ImClone probe to determine if Waksal’s brother — current ImClone chief executive Harlan Waksal — illegally profited from inside knowledge that federal health regulators weren’t happy with ImClone’s cancer drug, Erbitux.
Seemingly weekly disclosures of corporate misdeeds have made headlines for months, shaking investor confidence and contributing to a dour stock market climate.
After Samuel Waksal was arrested, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa, called the situation a “disgrace in this country right now — the unethical behavior of a few notorious company executives.”
While O’Neill said he believes such cases are rare, experts sense a growing willingness by prosecutors to investigate wrongdoing by corporate executives.
In the past, prosecutors avoided going after white-collar offenses because the public was more concerned with violent crime, said John Coffee, a Columbia University law professor who specializes in securities fraud.
That mindset changed after Enron Corp. imploded and accounting firm Arthur Andersen LLP was accused of intentionally shredding incriminating documents about the energy trader.
“There is a sense in America now that white-collar crime is a more serious problem,” Coffee said. “It suggests a very serious sea change on the part of the voter, and I think that affects prosecutorial priorities.”
While authorities won’t catch all corporate figures who have broken the law, the high profile cases could scare top executives tempted to engage in questionable activity, said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Corporate Governance.
“It’s designed to serve as a warning and to reinvigorate public confidence,” he said. “There will always be human beings who break the law, but enforcing the law tends make certain people less aggressive.”
Enron’s collapse into bankruptcy late last year set off the wave of corporate scandals, leaving thousands of workers jobless and their retirement funds decimated after executives enriched themselves amid a maze of alleged accounting abuses.
In a spectacular and swift implosion that drew comparisons to Enron, telecommunications giant Global Crossing Ltd. filed for bankruptcy protection in January, and the company and its top executives were besieged by charges of deceptive accounting. Founder and chairman Gary Winnick managed to cash out, selling $734 million in stock before the company hit bottom.
Accounting concerns also have dogged Tyco, with some questioning how it accounted for corporate acquisitions that turned it into a huge industrial conglomerate in the 1990s. Tyco’s stock plunged after the company reversed course on a breakup plan announced in January to assuage complaints its books were inscrutable.
The situation turned even worse when Tyco’s chief executive, Dennis Kozlowski, resigned June 3 — a day before being charged with illegally avoiding more than $1 million in New York sales taxes on paintings, including works by Renoir and Monet. Prosecutors’ investigation has widened to include whether Tyco paid for Kozlowski’s New York and Florida homes and improperly paid other expenses, according to a law enforcement source.
Meanwhile, Adelphia Communications Corp., the nation’s sixth biggest cable television system owner, fired its auditor, Deloitte & Touche, on June 10 after learning that past audits had failed to detect the questionable business arrangements that allowed founder John J. Rigas and his family to use corporate accounts for their personal business pursuits and rack up $3 billion in debt.
The company began disclosing the family’s borrowings in March; the stock has since lost nearly all its value, trading at 18 cents Friday after trading as high as $42.94 over the past 12 months.
Samuel Waksal faces civil and criminal charges for allegedly trying to save himself and his family from huge losses last December when he learned the FDA was about to reject his company’s application for approval of the highly touted cancer drug.
According to a civil lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Waksal relatives sold more than $10 million in ImClone stock within a 48-hour period.
As a result, investors are staying away from the stock market because they don’t know whether they should trust corporations anymore, said Paul Lapides, director of the corporate governance center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
“Money’s coming out of the market in a big way,” he said. “People are buying real estate and art because they’ve lost so much trust.”
Although the investigations are unnerving corporate boardrooms across the country, investors shouldn’t assume that the criminal investigations — or convictions — will persuade all executives to clean up their acts.
Defendants in white-collar crime cases can usually afford the best lawyers, and rarely face serious jail time, Lapides said.
“We have developed a privileged class that is beyond anything anyone could have imagined since the Roaring ’20s, since the robber barons,” he said. “If you get caught, under today’s conditions you are not going to serve time, and you will keep an awful lot of what you stole.”