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Fines for corporate wrongs not tough enough

Posted: Friday, December 13, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Remember all that talk about coming down hard on corporate misdeeds? Maybe it was only talk.

At least that's the way it looks from some of the lax punishments that securities regulators have levied on companies lately. Do something wrong, sometimes seriously wrong, and it often doesn't get you much more than a slap on the wrist.

So much for making companies and the people who lead them pay dearly for bad behavior, which was supposed to be how it worked in the post-Enron world.

Big business scandals were big news this year. Week after week, there were more serious troubles to report in corporate America.

Executives were charged with fraudulent accounting and stealing from their own companies. Wall Street firms were accused of manipulating their stock research for their own gains.

All of that was enough to spook investors and send them running out of the stock market over the summer. They didn't know who to trust.

That spurred a push to crack down on corporate malfeasance.

Everyone -- President Bush, members of Congress, officials at the major stock exchanges -- talked about not tolerating wrongdoing.

Anyone caught lying, cheating, stealing or even stretching the rules would have to pay for it, big time.

Now consider the outcome of some recent cases.

Take the Securities and Exchange Commission's first set of enforcement actions issued late last month under Regulation FD, which stands for fair disclosure.

Under the two-year-old rule, companies are forbidden from providing information to Wall Street insiders ahead of the public.

That follows years of investment analysts finding out information and sharing it with their large institutional clients, allowing them to buy and sell stock on the expected news.

Now, everyone -- analysts as well as investors big and small -- is supposed to hear company news at once, giving no one an unfair advantage.

Still, not everyone has followed the rules.

In one of the recent Regulation FD cases, officials at defense contractor Raytheon had a series of one-on-one conversations with analysts in early 2001, giving them information not previously made public.

Analysts' estimates of the companies' quarterly earnings had been higher than the companies' internal expectations, and the private conversations were intended to guide analysts to lower their estimates, the SEC said.

In another case, Siebel System's chief executive officer answered questions at an investment banking conference late last year that was not broadcast to the public over the Internet. His bullish remarks pushed the company's stock up 20 percent.

This is exactly the kind of selective disclosure that Regulation FD is supposed to stop.

But Raytheon was spared a financial punishment and just agreed to not do it again, and Siebel was fined $250,000.

Neither company admitted or denied wrongdoing.

Then there's the case against five Wall Street firms -- Goldman Sachs, Salomon Smith Barney, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank Securities and U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray -- for not keeping e-mails related to their business dealings for the period of time required under securities rules.

Regulators wanted the information because they are looking for more evidence that analysts publicly hyped stocks that they privately bad-mouthed, allegedly to help their firms win lucrative investment banking business.

Each firm was fined $1.65 million in early December, and promised to review their record-keeping procedures. None admitted or denied the allegations.

While that fine might sound like a lot, these are companies that generate billions of dollars a year.

More important is the precedent. Might companies now think they can delete potentially incriminating documents and still walk away with a relatively small fine?

It's crucial to stop corporate crime, not just to win back investor trust but to restore faith in the American business system.

That's not going to happen by letting companies off easy.

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Rachel Beck is the national business columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at rbeck(at)ap.org



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