In the white-collar world of finance, crime either pays or it doesn't. In the cases of Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco, John Rigas of Adelphia and the executives of Enron, who have been sentenced to prison for years and fined millions of dollars, it hasn't made them as well off as they were before.
Besides changing their lifestyle, crime could cost these men all their worldly goods, which they collected when they were defrauding their companies, their stockholders and any widow or child who lost her life savings.
The judge is the one who decides what the convicted felons must give up. This includes yachts, private planes, homes and lavish parties attended by big shots who had no idea they were drinking up the company's pension funds.
Once a judge decides on the fines, the problem is in the hands of U.S. marshals, who not only escort the guilty parties to jail, but are also in charge of making sure the penalties are paid.
In the case of Kozlowski, they have taken away his houses, his yacht, his paintings and his shower curtains. (Where he is going, he will have to take showers without curtains.) Now the marshals must sell everything.
They hope to make as much money as possible, so they hold public auctions for the goods. After the auction, the marshals turn over the money and the judge decides how to split it up.
He pays the creditors (10 cents on the dollar), the IRS and, of course, the lawyers. The lawyers would like it all, but the judge sets their fees -- even if they lost the case and their client must walk the plank.
I know you're wondering what happens to a white-collar person who turns state's evidence, pleads guilty and gives information about how he and his associates stole all the money. He does this with great sadness, and also in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
The deal could be anything from five years in prison to two years of probation. So the prosecutor won't be accused of caving in, the whistle-blower has to cash in all his chips, stocks, bonds and his country club membership.
Why do people like Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Kozlowski resort to stealing millions of dollars? As Willie Sutton said when asked why he held up banks, "Because that's where the money is."
But there is more to it than that. People say it's greed. It is also unrequited love. Those who defraud stockholders and employees and cook the books do it because they are lacking in affection, and they feel if they have money -- tons of it -- people will like them and admire all the things they own. They also do it for their wives. One of the things Kozlowski was so proud of was the multimillion-dollar party he gave for his wife on the island of Sardinia.
But when the balloon bursts, the wives are going to have to live a different life, and keep asking themselves why they needed so much money to get by.
What does all this mean for you? Every time you read that a white-collar criminal has to sell his house with all the furnishings at a U.S. marshal's auction, you should go. You might wind up with a van Gogh painting for a song.
(c)2005, Tribune Media Services