It’s not the crime — it’s the cover-up.
The old saying brought to mind again with three major companies embroiled in scandal:
• Wal-Mart — top executives covering up massive overseas bribery;
• News Corp. — Rupert Murdoch and son James, covering up massive hacking and bribery;
• BP — executives seemingly oblivious to reality and still denying and trying to cover up the magnitude of the Gulf oil spills while junior executives obstruct justice by deleting hundreds of emails.
What to do?
Let’s admit it — figuring out how to sanction companies and senior executives can be tough. Fines do nothing — they’re paid by somebody else. And sometimes it is hard to pin a criminal case on the CEO — or other senior executives — because as I discussed yesterday, gauzy memos from pliable lawyers provide a shield that can be tough to pierce.
Just to be clear: I do believe the three companies I just listed should be indicted and News Corp. should lose its FCC licenses. But when it comes to CEOs at companies like this, the British parliamentary committee that investigated News Corp. may be on to something. They concluded that Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.”
Maybe we need a public board that’s empowered to get rid of CEOs and senior management — even when there is no crime we can prove but they have ignored wrongdoing and violations of clear ethical mandates. Because I can tell you, after many years as a prosecutor, unless and until these guys lose their jobs and their money, they will not take any of this stuff seriously.
Remember: corporations are creations of the state, creations of a legal structure we control, and we can hold them accountable as we desire.
When companies and their boards fail to act to uphold the simple principles of integrity that have to guide the marketplace, we need a way to get change at the top.
That’s “My View.”