Target criminal `upperworld'

July 11, 2002|By Gus Russo

WITH ALL the hand-wringing about the cesspool that is Wall Street, a new arrival to the planet might assume that large-scale corporate corruption is something new. But not only are institutional fraud and wanton lawlessness as old as civilization, a case can be made that they are as American as apple pie.

Today's "upperworld" villains are likely good students of history and, as such, must feel assured that their odds of going to the slammer are about as slim as those of Osama bin Laden inviting President Bush out for a day at the mall. They rightly conclude that the gamble dwarfs the risk.

And our justice system has yet to prove them wrong.

Indeed, the nation's most effective lawbreakers have not only gone unpunished but often have been rewarded for their success. One can envision an Arthur Andersen accounting suite with Cornelius Vanderbilt's infamous quote etched into the wall: "You don't suppose you can run a railroad in accordance with the statutes, do you?"

It was not until a century after a cabal of entrepreneurs destroyed unions, bribed politicians, bombed competitors and poisoned Indians that academics dared even speak of "white-collar criminals" and "robber barons."

One can find scholarly tomes on the transgressions of so-called "legitimate" businesses, and even documentary television has occasionally dared to bite the hand that feeds it and quietly attempted to wake up the sleeping giant.

For instance, PBS' Frontline, in a piece that first aired Oct. 9, 2000, coaxed Drug Enforcement Administration officials to appear on camera and attest to the numerous American banks engaged in laundering hundreds of millions of dollars annually in Medellin cartel drug money. That same program estimated recently that corporate accountants have defrauded Americans of $200 billion in just the past 10 years.

What does this say about how we as a society choose to enforce the criminal code? And how have the FBI and the Justice Department spent our tax dollars? The answers are unsettling in the extreme and, in a logical world, would force a dramatic reappraisal of our national ethos -- regrettably, at a time when we are engaged in a deadly morality play with an enemy that questions our way of life.

While our law enforcement agencies spent their budgets trying to bring down "the Dapper Don" or "Sammy the Bull," the country was being robbed blind, if not brought to its financial knees, by a class of criminal that has always been above the law.

The current crop of corporate thieves knows that so long as their firms prosper, laws are irrelevant. Or as Henry Ford said, "We know that anything which is economically right is morally right."

When the entire weight of American justice succeeded in nabbing Al Capone for $215,000 in tax evasion (for which he was sentenced to 11 years), the richest man in the world at the time, J. Pierpont Morgan, quietly paid not 1 cent to the IRS. When confronted about this, the haughty mogul responded, "I owe the public nothing."

And while John Gotti's life in prison dominated New York's front pages in the last decade, the Wall Street plunderers, who were abusing infinitely more innocent victims, weren't even making it into the business section. A savvy old Chicago bookie I spoke with calls such distraction "linguistic prestidigitation." It wasn't until the corporate accountants verged on collapsing the economy that anyone took notice.

When these "upperworld" bad actors were hauled before Congress on Monday, they predictably took a page out of the book written by their underworld counterparts, pleading the Fifth Amendment ad nauseum.

The sight of WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers straining to read the plea from an index card mirrored Sam "Mooney" Giancana's performance more than four decades earlier. Recent disclosures about Mr. Bush's questionable business practices make one wonder if he should be preparing his own index card.

In order to extricate our politicians from the knee-jerk bed-sharing with the Enrons of the world, and hopefully redirect our G-men, I believe we might start with one of the most powerful tools in our moral arsenal: language.

By referring to car manufacturers who knowingly sell exploding gas tanks as "actuarial miscreants," or a gaggle of conniving accountants as "stock manipulators," we diminish not only the seriousness of their crimes but also our will to prosecute them. I suggest we apply the same verbiage to white-collar criminals as we traditionally have to first-generation immigrant lawbreakers: murderers, hoods, gangsters and racketeers.

It might even help if our business and crime reporters assign colorful nicknames to these pocket-lining CEOs to sustain our interest. It certainly worked with the non-WASP racketeers. To that end, I humbly offer the first suggestions for the wags' consideration: Bernie "The Beard" Ebbers, Ken "The Boss" Lay, Sam "Martha's Boy" Waksal and Martha "Ma" Stewart.

Gus Russo is an author and investigative reporter who lives in Baltimore. His latest book is The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America (Bloomsbury 2002).

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