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Too Many Wall Street Crooks? Book 'Em!

June 02, 2003|R. Foster Winans | R. Foster Winans, a former Wall Street Journal columnist convicted of insider trading, is author of "Trading Secrets" (St. Martin's Press, 1986).

I hope the bad boys of the current season -- scoundrels like Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodget, who lied to investors, and the New York Times' Jayson Blair, who lied to readers -- write books about themselves and their misdeeds. I don't care if they get rich doing it, although I'm betting the lawyers will be the only ones laughing their way to the bank.

In fact, I wish more miscreants would write books and sell their stories to the movies. It's good for justice, good for society and good for business. I'd believe that even if I wasn't a crook who wrote a book ("Trading Secrets") and tried to sell my story to the movies. (Oliver Stone beat me to it with his 1987 hit "Wall Street.")

If Blodget had a million-dollar book-and-movie deal, he'd have a job again, be paying taxes, explaining his disgraceful behavior and maybe acquiring some assets in case his victims want to sue him for sucking the yolk out of their nest eggs.

Instead, we yearn to put these guys in prison. The list of potential inmates is long and illustrious -- Wall Street is becoming a rat-breeding contest as weekly revelations of unethical and criminal behavior rise corpse-like to the surface.

Having served nine months in a federal minimum-security prison for insider trading in the early 1980s, I'm convinced that jail is exactly the wrong place to put the convicts coming out of this cycle of scandals.

If I were sentencing a highly visible Wall Street crook, I'd order him a set of bright-orange duds with the following printed on the front: "I stole your retirement and all I got was this lousy jumpsuit." On the back, in black letters: "INMATE." Then, if he drew a five-year prison sentence, I'd make him work that many years, wearing the jumpsuit, emptying waste baskets on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Let the world see and be reminded, every time the news cameras sweep the floor of the exchange, that cheating and stealing on Wall Street have real consequences.

Sam Waksal faces seven to 10 years for trading on inside information about his cancer-treatment company Imclone. I'd put him to work cleaning bed pans on a cancer ward for children.

What will happen instead is the taxpaying public will shell out an estimated $40,000 a year to keep each Wall Street crook locked up. Then these criminals will just sit around and complain about getting caught, worry that someone will find where they've hidden their ill-gotten gains and learn bad habits from other crooks.

The public, meanwhile, will be lulled into the false impression that the problem has been dealt with and all the bad guys have been put away.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. For every Wall Street crook caught, hundreds will escape prosecution and their firms will skate through the mess by paying fines that qualify as nuisance fees.

Better that these crooks are portrayed in TV movies based on their tell-alls that finger their unindicted co-conspirators.

We all have a right to know what really happened, who was really to blame, and who were the big fish that got away.

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