White-collar crime pays

July 12, 2002|By Byron F. Hicks

IT'S NEARLY impossible to keep up with all the developments of the likes of Enron when such high crimes and misdemeanors fly across the business pages with dizzying regularity.

Here at Western Correctional Institution and, no doubt, in other prisons across the country, developments in these seedy tales are being watched with great interest. It's not in hope of learning a new trick that we watch. Forgery, fraud, bait-and-switch, tax evasion and evidence destruction are things we all understand here.

No, the reason we watch so eagerly, the reason it's so riveting, is that we want to see if the blind lady with the scales is going to give these dirtballs a pass. Again.

High-end, white-collar crime really pays in the U.S.A. Steal a billion, ruin a few thousand lives, destroy confidence in our institutions and get a slap on the wrist. Remember Mike Milken, the junk bond king? He sold worthless stock and destroyed the company for which he worked. He made $550 million in 1987 while doing this. When he was caught, he served two years of a 10-year sentence and paid $1.1 billion in fines. Not bad work, if you can get it. He's still rich.

And if white-collar criminals are caught and go to trial, they never face what your average criminal does. The average criminal's going to do time, real time, measured-in-decades time. He gets caught, goes to jail, gets a public defender, stays in jail until court and shows up in an orange jumpsuit. If he goes to trial and loses, the state's attorney usually asks for the maximum sentence and most of the time gets it. If he takes a deal, more often than not he still has years before he'll see the street again.

Contrast this with the white-collar criminal. If charged, he makes bail and spends no more than one night in jail. When he finally goes to court after taking as much time as he needs to prepare his defense, he shows up with the best lawyers money can buy. He has experts, spin doctors, jury consultants and whatever else his lawyers think he needs to beat the rap. He shows up tanned and rested. He looks nothing like a criminal. If he gets on the stand, he can mesmerize the jury as if it were his board of directors. And he almost always wins.

It shouldn't be that way, but it is. All societies reserve the right to judge and punish the criminal element among them. It's a necessary function; without it, the law of the jungle prevails.

Corporate criminals have no respect for the laws that govern us because they think they are above those laws. They don't fear justice because they don't feel its sting when they commit their crimes.

When the executives at Enron decided to manipulate the California energy market last summer, they knew the effect their actions would have. Read any big city newspaper during a heat wave.

The list of the elderly, the poor, the vulnerable who can't afford high electricity prices is long. It didn't give the executives a moment's pause. One illustration is the way an Enron executive's sense of humor works: One of the code names for an operation that diverted electricity from California was "Fat Boy." "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" were the nicknames of the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.

We have laws against criminal conspiracies. They are known as the RICO statutes, for the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act. They have been used to prosecute Mafia dons, senators, drug dealers and many lesser lights of crime.

We have laws to confiscate the proceeds and property of those convicted of criminal activity.

Are white-collar criminals immune from them? Are they sacred? Equal justice under the law must be more than hollow sound bites. It's only fair.

Byron F. Hicks, 47, is serving a 15-year sentence for second-degree murder at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland. He is a native of Cincinnati and has lived in Towson.

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