Ever have a sleepless night? You find yourself watching late night television and pondering whether to call overseas clients in their time zone as a way to score points. If so, you may have come across a police reality show known simply as COPS. According to the Fox Television website, COPS is "still one of the most popular television shows on the air," leading one to wonder about the national fascination with crime and disgrace.
Unfortunately, there never seems to be a shortage of bad boys and gals who flaunt the law. The temptation of easy money is too intoxicating for some, ensuring that the saga will likely continue for a long time to come.
Just recently, former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to twenty-four years over a corporate scandal that has received significant press attention and prompted a new wave of governance standards and rules. New York Times reporter Alexei Barrionuevo describes Skilling's sentence as slightly shorter than the twenty-five years metered out to Bernie J. Ebbers, former head of WorldCom "who was sentenced to 25 years last year for his role in the $11 billion fraud that led to that company's collapse." (In the spirit of full disclosure, let me confess to owning some two hundred shares of Enron common stock.)
Financial Times reporter Kevin Allison writes that David Kreinberg, former CFO of voicemail software company Converse, "became the first top executive to plead guilty to conspiracy and securities fraud in connection with options backdating." Rumour has it that others are in the hot seat and have hired criminal lawyers.
Financial wrongdoing accounts for an entire industry of specialists. Benchmark Financial Services bills itself as an expert "in investigations of pension fraud, money management abuses and wrongdoing involving securities brokerages and pension investment consultants," adding that their "investigations frequently focus upon illegal or unethical business practices that are commonplace in the securities brokerage, asset management and consulting industries, as well as hidden or poorly disclosed financial arrangements between vendors to pensions."
Another organization, Corporate Resolutions, focuses on fraud, money laundering, risk management and competitive intelligence. President Ken Springer, a Certified Fraud Examiner and former special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, provides an interesting update in the company's monthly newsletter about security issues.
Notwithstanding their efforts, some interesting questions come to mind with respect to how people respond to problems in pension land and elsewhere.
1. Does news about white collar criminal punishments deter others from misdeeds?
2. What type and magnitude of loss roils people to the point of lobbying for changes in the system, with the goal of minimizing future mishaps?
3. Does the avoidance of shame play a role in keeping financial abuses to a minimum? (How many rogue traders are now making a nice living as commentators, security consultants or well-published writers?)
4. What is the fine line between fraud and unethical practices?
5. Who is responsible for early detection of fraud within an organization?
6. What can investors and/or plan beneficiaries do to protect themselves from fraud and "ethically challenged" decision-makers?
Taking a pro-active approach can go a long way to calming jitters. For pension fiduciaries, providing transparency about the investment process, including choice of money managers and related vendors, is huge.
Why then is it often difficult to get meaningful information about a plan and how it is being managed? Why do we pay attention to the bad boys and gals instead of more emphatically rewarding all the good players?