With the fiscal malaise fueled in part by the corporate scandals of 2001 still weighing heavily on the U.S. economy, Americans have a right to expect that big business leaders have at least learned a lesson and have stopped making personal greed their No. 1 priority.
If they have, proof is lacking. Quite the contrary.
In 2002, as corporate profits sagged, unemployment rose and investor losses persisted, the nation's top executives continued to lead the good life, receiving about 10 percent more in salary and bonuses than they did in 2001. As one wag put it, the goose that laid their golden eggs still hasn't been butchered.
American Airlines chief Donald Carty became the new symbol of corporate excess last month when he hatched a golden egg of his own. While Carty was pushing unions for the near-bankrupt carrier to accept layoffs and pay cuts, he was arranging to protect the pensions of top executives from any bankruptcy filing and providing huge bonuses if they stayed on the sinking airship through 2004. When this little secret was revealed, Carty quickly became a former CEO and the bonus program went up in smoke.
More doubt that the corporate world has been taught a lesson emerged last week from a wide-reaching settlement that, ironically, was intended to hammer that lesson home. It was announced that 10 Wall Street firms would pay $1.4 billion in penalties and costs for pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible investors. While it's true that the deal levels the heaviest fines in the history of the securities markets, in reality it amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist. It was generally conceded that the big brokerage houses would earn back the penalties within a matter of weeks, if not days. And if all of the millions of deceived investors successfully tapped the restitution fund established by the settlement, they would each get a check of $129.
It now appears that if big business is to finally learn its well-deserved lesson, it will have to be through an old, tried-and-true way, the court system. The settlement should be extremely useful toward this end, at least. Thousands of pages of documents, legal papers and e-mails have been released detailing how the investment industry misled the public. These papers are now readily available for investors to pounce on while pursuing individual claims against the firms that wronged them.
So, after all that's been said and done, the public's clamor for justice has been mated to a traditional rallying cry of the aggrieved -- Sue the rascals!
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