Books

Best Business Crime Writing of the Yea

Just who do these lying, swindling, greedy CEOs think they are? Bernie Ebbers thinks he's a great Christian. After the fraud scandal enveloped the little motel phone service that Ebbers had built into Worldcom, he stood up at church in little Brookhaven, Miss., and tearfully declared, "More than anything else, I hope that my witness for Jesus Christ will not be jeopardized."

David Duncan, the Arthur Andersen partner running the Enron account, thinks he was just a guy trying to make his client happy and his million-dollar salary by keeping the fees rolling in. Duncan rationalized one Enron scheme after another to gain the approval of the committee that is supposed to protect the auditing firm's integrity.

These are two of the faces in a new paperback collection of articles that chronicle the Swindlers' Market of the last three years.

In Best Business Crime Writing, editor James Surowiecki is the docent of a corporate rogues' gallery. The portraits of these corporate illusionists, collected from newspapers and magazines over the past year, tell us about the failure of integrity, vigilance or basic judgment that afflicted these high-flying execs and toothless watchdogs who were supposed to protect investors. The paperback is meaty enough for business-scandal junkies, and readable enough for those who buy Sunday papers for the comics and TV listings.

The middle section of the book is about the watchdogs — the SEC, current uncapped crusader Eliot Spitzer (the New York Attorney General), the stock analysts and the auditors. Jane Meyer, for example, profiles Arthur Levitt, the SEC chairman during the Clinton administration, as a quixotic fighter for investor protection, frustrated at every turn by lobbyists and members of Congress. There is the obligatory section on "solutions." The good news is that there's fair amount of humor in that section. The bad news is that some of the humor is really sad. Members of Congress — especially, but not exclusively, Republicans — who were frustrating Arthur Levitt at every turn are now great reformers. We have President Bush, whose business success was basically in trading on his family name and connections, calling for higher ethical standards, including legislation to outlaw insider loans like the one he got. Pretty funny, all right.

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