NEW YORK, SEPT. 11 -- Junk bond king Michael Milken may have pleaded guilty to felony in the biggest securities fraud case in Wall Street's history, but he was scrupulously honest when he played Little League baseball 30-odd years ago.
A longtime family friend offered up that nugget of information in one of nearly 200 letters written to U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in an effort to influence her as she prepares to sentence Milken next month.
"I remember Michael tagging a runner at second base during an important game, the umpire calling the runner out. Unbeknown to this umpire, Michael had dropped the ball. Without hesitation, he informed the umpire of his mistake, thereby necessitating him to reverse his call," wrote Sherman Margoles, whose daughters attended high school with Milken.
"Michael's straightforward honesty, at this early age, was a direct result of family teachings coupled with an inborn sense of morality," according to the testimonial of Margoles, a resident of Milken's hometown of Encino, Calif.
Other correspondents were less charitable. "I hope you 'throw the book' at Mr. Milken! I'm sick and tired of white-collar criminals getting a slap on the hands," said a hand-written note signed simply, "Barbara Hoskins, Citizen."
Milken, who revolutionized U.S. finance by dramatically expanding the market for risky, high-yield junk bonds, faces a possible maximum sentence of 28 years in prison after pleading guilty to six felony counts of securities fraud last spring. Wood is scheduled to sentence him on Oct. 1, although there may be a hearing first that would delay sentencing.
As part of his landmark plea bargain in April, Milken already has agreed to pay $600 million in penalties -- including a $200 million fine and $400 million in restitution to victims of his swindles. As part of the deal, the government agreed to drop more than 90 other counts against the former executive of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc.
It is normal for outsiders to write to a judge to seek to influence sentencing, but the Milken case has attracted unusually high interest. That is due partly to the media interest in the affair and partly to what apparently was an organized effort among some of Milken's supporters to generate letters on his behalf.
The overwhelming majority of the correspondence, stuffed in three large folders in a basement records office at the federal courthouse on downtown Manhattan's Foley Square, recommend leniency. In urging a light sentence, writers cite Milken's philanthropic work and his success in raising money for speculative or minority-owned companies that otherwise might never have got started.
Milken's backers included some surprises, such as Monty Hall, famed for hosting the television game show "Let's Make a Deal"; Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was UN ambassador when he met Milken; and two former professional football players, Rosey Grier and Fran Tarkenton.
More predictably, Milken drew support from many prominent business leaders, especially those for whom he helped to raise money. There were letters from Occidental Petroleum Corp. Chairman Armand Hammer, Time Warner Inc. Chairman Steven J. Ross, CBS President Laurence Tisch, Beatrice International Food Chairman Reginald F. Lewis and Safeway Chairman Peter A. Magowan.
Hall, who regularly hosts charitable fund-raising events, said that Milken is "a man who deeply cares about the society in which he lives."
Former football star Grier said Milken was "a man who has shown his desire and ability to work to find solutions. One thing I know in my heart; he cares."
Grier, like many other writers -- including Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony -- urged the judge to sentence Milken to some kind of public service, maybe helping the homeless or rejuvenating Eastern Europe. That way, his talents wouldn't be squandered.
A number of the letters also praise Milken for showing a bit of restraint by leading a relatively humble lifestyle. Unlike many other Wall Street financiers of the 1980s, Milken avoided flamboyant displays of wealth.
"Michael has made a great deal of money, but money does not drive him," wrote Ross of Time Warner. "Michael is unlike any of the figures who have been caught up in the Wall Street scandal. ... He is no yuppie, no wheeler and dealer."
Of course, not all of the letters writers take that view.
More than a handful employed bitter and, occasionally, unpublishable, language to describe their desire to see Milken punished for what they claim was his destructive effect on America's economy and society.
"My family and I are most interested in the future of Michael Milken and wish to express our desire to see him hung ... until death," wrote a man from Antioch, Calif., whose signature was difficult to decipher. He said his parents had lost $28,000 of retirement money in investments that went bad because of Milken's activities.
Ronald Cornwall of Pennsauken, N.J., in a handwritten note on a 3-inch-by-5-inch index card, said a junk-bond-financed leveraged buyout, or LBO, of his company had had the following effect: "Salary before LBO: $33,000. This year's projected salary: $24,700. I have three kids, a wife, and have to make ends meet. Can my kids have college in their future? A vacation? Any extras?"
Referring to Milken's public expression of regret in pleading guilty, Cornwall added: "I've read and reread this statement a thousand times, and I see no remorse in it for the real victims. Hundreds of thousands of working people have had years of loyalty and hard work broken off and shoved up their butts for the personal wealth of the few. When you sentence him, remember us."