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Corporations' Execs Should Be Accountable for Criminal Acts

June 22, 2003

"Medical Device Maker Hid Malfunctions" (June 13) revealed the alarming way in which corporate misconduct, even if it leads to multiple deaths, is treated as a civil, rather than a criminal, matter.

Guidant Corp. pleaded guilty to 10 felonies, including lying to the FDA, for covering up malfunctions of a device to treat aortic aneurysms that led to 57 emergency procedures and 12 deaths. For this, the company has been fined $92.4 million.

"They intentionally misled the public, doctors, and the FDA," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Matthew J. Jacobs. "It was a criminal act, and they are being punished."

Who is "they?"

The fine, however high, will be paid by stockholders, who presumably did nothing wrong.

Corporations do not commit crimes. Corporations do not make choices that kill people. Only people make such choices. Why are these people not held accountable? Enron Corp.'s Kenneth L. Lay or WorldCom Inc.'s Bernard J. Ebbers or countless other leaders of U.S. corporations made decisions that led to the loss of trillions of dollars from investors' pension funds. They acted fraudulently and willfully to cover up their illegal acts.

And yet they continue to live off their billions, unmolested by our legal system. The nation's major investment firms that we now know were running a con game for investors were recently required to settle legal action being pursued by New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer by paying fines.... Even though there was overwhelming evidence of criminal conduct by specific individuals at the top of the food chain, none of them is being individually prosecuted. Nor are they paying the fines.

The theft, pure and simple, of stockholders' assets is not treated as a crime. And yet if someone stole $20 out of the pocket of those same investors on the street, they would be arrested and sent to jail. Indeed, under California's three strikes law, they might go to jail for 20 years if they had prior convictions.

We are hearing a lot about investor confidence and the cleaning up of corporate malfeasance on Wall Street. Corporations, and, more important, the individuals who run them, would be far more motivated to behave with honesty and integrity if they saw a few of their friends going to jail for corporate crime. Nothing inspires fastidious clarity of thinking on right and wrong like the possibility of real punishment. Until our legal system begins to treat corporate crime as a crime, committed by human beings making criminal choices, the situation will not change, and we will all continue to be victimized by these ruthless, even murderous, "corporations."

Anne Cox

Laguna Beach

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