Franklin C. Brown is in. Once the top lawyer at Rite Aid Corp., Brown reported to prison last week to begin serving 10 years for the role he played in accounting fraud that forced the third-largest U.S. pharmacy chain to retroactively reduce earnings by $1.6 billion.
And in the next few days, Bernard J. Ebbers should find out whether he’s going to be in, or out, as a federal jury in New York weighs his claims that he knew nothing about the $11 billion accounting fraud while he was chairman of WorldCom Inc. Although Ebbers admitted he was fastidious about certain corporate details — to the point of eliminating free coffee to save the company $4 million — he told the court, “I know what I don’t know. To this day I don’t know technology, and I don’t know finance and accounting.” It was his underlings, his lawyer said, who committed the fraud between 2000 and 2002.
So far, Stewart and Brown are among the small handful of executives who have actually gone to prison in the crop of cases stemming from last decade’s investment boom. Stewart’s case differs from the others, in that she was convicted of obstructing an investigation into personal stock trades. And the only reason she has already served time is that she decided to get her sentence over with before her appeal was heard.
Many, including Enron’s top two officers, Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling, have yet to have their day in court; in fact, the latter two aren’t scheduled to come to trial until early next year. Some, including Scott D. Sullivan, WorldCom’s former chief financial officer who was the star witness against Ebbers, have pleaded guilty but are yet to be sentenced.
Ebbers’s trial, which started eight weeks ago, has seemed short compared with the interminable case against two former top executives of Tyco International Ltd., chairman L. Dennis Kozlowski and chief financial officer Mark H. Swartz, who are now being retried after their first, six-month hearing ended in a mistrial. The trial of HealthSouth’s former chairman Richard M. Scrushy started in late January and isn’t expected to end until late April at the earliest.
Despite the time it takes to prosecute, it’s clear the government isn’t finished trying to hold executives accountable. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, has increased its scrutiny of corporate officers, checking their personal tax returns when companies are audited.
The government is not through with Stewart either. She still faces a Securities and Exchange Commission suit to bar her from serving as a director at a public company and to limit her ability to serve as an officer.