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In True Corporate Crime Drama, Little Guy Doesn't Win

July 10, 2002|Patt Morrison

There's an undeservedly obscure Hollywood film called "The Solid Gold Cadillac," which shows up now and again on some cable-movie channel. It is a fairy tale of corporate America that for its time--1956--was satirically sharp, and of course the whole thing winds up with Judy Holliday and Paul Douglas living happily ever after on honorably earned stock dividends.

If you get the chance, see it. Its lineage is Michael Moore out of Norman Rockwell, and it's more instructive of American values than a social studies class: a fable about how little people triumph over grotesquely overpaid corporate officers, and go on to run an American company strictly on the up-and-up, as if it were a church bake sale, and everyone prospers.

That's how you know it's a fable. Out here, beyond the soundstage door, the little people don't triumph. They get scythed down by the Charles Keatings and Ken Lays, the Enrons and Global Crossings and WorldComs, the chaff of some CEO's hit-and-run harvest.

On Tuesday, as what Kevin Phillips calls the era's "politics of resentment" stood behind him and gave him a nudge, President Bush spoke on Wall Street about corporate responsibility. For the benefit of anyone who hit the "mute" button, the screen behind Bush bore the words "corporate responsibility" about a hundred times over, as if some naughty CEO had been forced to write them on the board, which is more punishment than most offenders of that ilk seem to get.

It was a speech with far more "shoulds" than "wills." Even so, I heard the Wall Street audience interrupt it with applause only once. They were probably furtively dialing their cell phones, telling their human relations officers to hurry out to hardware stores and junior high schools to find some old Eagle Scouts to put on their boards now, or calling their lawyers to find out whether Aruba has an extradition treaty with the U.S.

How was this new set of rules--or more often suggestions--playing among the people who already play by the rules? To find out, I checked out the trenches of Bungalow Heaven, small-town, small-business South Pasadena.

Bruce Garbe's father opened this jewelry business in 1946, in the flush years just after the war, when engagement rings were as much in demand as bungalows and then baby carriages would soon be.

Garbe took it over from his father in 1982. It is a small shop on South Fair Oaks Avenue, in a well-tended strip mall opposite a thriving gourmet market. Five and sometimes six days a week, he sits with a loupe screwed onto his eye, monocle-like, repairing watches, mending bracelets, making rings, maybe resetting some of the same stones his father sold.

He also spends a good bit of time on his books, the fiscal inventories, the business taxes, the employee forms, getting it all to the accountant on time and in good order. All the reports of high crimes among the high and mighty is mighty annoying to a man who knows he has to account for every nickel and every gram of gold that crosses the counter. "Something's got to be done about that stuff. I can't do that in my own business--I've got to abide by the laws, so they should too."

More than that, though, it's personal. He rode out one stock market mess in the late 1960s and again in the late 1980s, but "this is the worst I've ever been through.... I've had so many of these stocks myself that have gone almost belly up or way, way down ... even the good stuff like AT&T, considered a blue-chip stock."

When even the big ones like Enron fall, or get shoved down the stairs by their own leaders, "a person doesn't know what to do, and you depend on these stocks to supply your retirement," Garbe says. "In my case it's not that far off, and now I don't have enough to retire, so I'm going to have to work more."

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Never mind all the slip-sliding tactics that Bush didn't cite, like offshore tax havens for CEOs. Most astonishing were the "shoulds," reforms Bush mentioned that are, amazingly, not already in the law. Most of us have to sign more blood oaths to get a credit card than these people evidently have to do to run a Fortune 500 corporation.

People who serve on committees that audit companies, nominate directors and recommend how much they get paid aren't already barred from fiscal relationships with the corporation?

Bigwigs can trade in the company stock during periods when their employees can't?

Corporate officers who get rich from false accounting statements aren't already required to give up all the dough they get from that?

Executives guilty of fraud aren't already banned from just jumping to the board of some other company and fleecing a new flock? (Sounds like the Catholic Church's shell game of moving around its troubling molester-priests.)

Bruce Garbe belongs to the local Rotary, and is wary of anything that sounds like "more big government," which some of Bush's proposals did to him, but it has to be done, he sighs. "I don't know where all this money's coming from. We have this homeland defense stuff and armed forces and now this."

But here's a small businessman's idea about financing the posse to ride herd on big business, a new spin on "paying for your crimes."

"Maybe if they have stock listed, a percentage should go to pay for that [enforcement]. It's not our fault these guys are crooks."

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Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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