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It's About Time for a Little Payback

Errant execs owe us ... and there's a way to collect.

July 22, 2002|JENNIFER GROSSMAN

In his public spanking of Wall Street, President Bush bemoaned the "high-profile acts of deception" that have made "the business pages of American newspapers ... read like a scandal sheet."

In response, he unleashed a barrage of proposals--including a financial crimes SWAT team, doubling the maximum prison terms for financial fraud, freezing improper payments to corporate execs and a 10-point accountability plan for American business. Perfectly appropriate and long overdue, but why stop there?

It's all well and good to make corrupt executives pay steeper fines and languish a little longer under mansion arrest or to bar them from future jobs where they may again succumb to their penchant for investor abuse. We'll keep the streets clean of malefacting moguls and accounting acrobats--and hip, hip, hooray for all that. But why not go a step further? Why not ask these self-servers to serve not just time but also the country whose system they have taken advantage of and their fellow citizens whom they have cheated and defrauded?

Kennedy had his Peace Corps; Clinton his AmeriCorps; Bush Sr. his "thousand points of light"; and President George W. his USA Freedom Corps. And while it's wonderful to ask law-abiding citizens to volunteer, it's the lawbreakers who have the biggest debt to society to repay.

Let's call it CriminalCorps. Its slogan: From the Greedy to the Needy.

In New York City alone last year, about 65,000 ordinary offenders were sentenced to community service: cleaning up graffiti, picking up trash or planting bulbs in Central Park. Why shouldn't upper-crust crooks be asked to make themselves useful as well?

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill says chief embezzlement officers ought to be "strung up from the highest tree." Lynching rich reprobates may placate restive voters concerned about cozy ties between big business and the GOP, but rather than making swindlers swing from trees, why not make them plant, prune and water them instead?

After all, this is a time of national crisis, when every citizen has been called upon to do his or her part in protecting our homeland. The fact that so many of these alleged abuses occurred in a post-Sept. 11 landscape of national sacrifice and fiscal need makes their offenses even more galling and the perpetrators' obligation to make amends all the more apropos.

Consider, for example, those ego-driven art collectors (and former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski will certainly prove not to be the only, or even biggest, one) avoiding millions in sales taxes at a time when New York never needed its revenues more. These Mr. Bigs collected not just art but honors and accolades for their public displays of cheap civic concern. So let's give these "patrons" a chance to truly demonstrate their repentance and compassion by rolling up their Saville Row sleeves and serving the hard-working taxpayers they have hitherto bilked and bamboozled.

Ten months ago, Bush rallied the nation to the war against terrorism, asking all Americans to assume "new responsibilities." Why not begin with those who have so flagrantly shirked them?

After all, we are talking about individuals who--ethically challenged though they might be--are for the most part extremely talented and creative. Let's ask them to put some of that energy and industriousness into the task of coming up with domestic and international solutions to homeland security, or supporting our servicemen and women overseas.

Let's ask ImClone's Sam Waksal to put his biotech know-how to work in coming up with bioterrorism vaccines. Let's ask Enron's Ken Lay to work with petroleum engineers to develop new energy resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Let's ask WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers to work with the Federal Communications Commission to fortify our national communication network against terrorist attacks. Let's ask Adelphia's John Rigas to work with the USO to organize entertainment for our troops overseas.

The aim is not to humiliate--or even rehabilitate--corporate scoundrels, but if in rendering useful service they reform their formerly rapacious ways, so much the better.

Any journey to transformation, any 12-step program, requires individuals not just to repent but to actually make amends. In so doing, perhaps these former Masters of the Universe will recognize that they are its servants and stewards as well.

*

Jennifer Grossman is a former corporate speechwriter and was a speechwriter for the elder President Bush.

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