"CROOK of the century" is only one of several nasty brands being applied in the British press to the late Robert Maxwell,whose far-flung publishing empire is now in a financial free fall. The accusers in this case, according to the Sun newspaper, are pensioners of the Daily Mirror who learned that more than $900 million in pension and other funds may have been skimmed from Mr. Maxwell's Mirror Group Newspapers. They are not alone in their complaints. A lengthy queue of aggrieved creditors and employees is now forming around the remains of his tangled and massively indebted enterprises. Expect some time to elapse before the unsnarling is completed. But even at this early stage, the scope of the financial mess and scandal he left behind is enough to take your breath away.

The wreckage in his wake stretches to both sides of the Atlantic. The sinking New York Daily News, which he owned, is now under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York. Court-appointed administrators control the media mogul's private holdings in London. His offices have been searched by the British Serious Fraud Squad Office for assets that allegedly have disappeared from his companies. Last week bankers were reeling from the news that funds from Mr. Maxwell's publicly held companies, Mirror Group Newspapers and Maxwell Communication Corp. -- to which the banks had lent millions -- apparently have been secretly diverted to the foundering private companies now under control of the court-appointed administrators. Now it appears that the funds were also used to prop up stock prices of his publicly held companies. The count is still underway, but the current estimate is that Mr. Maxwell went down at sea last month leaving behind an empire also drowning under a $4 billion debt burden.

Robert Maxwell didn't do all this damage by himself. The former Labor member of the British Parliament eventually was the owner of more than 400 companies and several major publications around the world. His flamboyance and unslakeable appetite for acclaim and commerce were aided and abetted by a less-than-vigilant British regulatory system and a prim and proper bevy of corporate officers and bankers who apparently were only too eager to help him play with other people's money so long as they got their cut. The damage assessment must be far-reaching to capture the full extent of all Mr. Maxwell did so that there can never be a recurrence. And in the process of gaining a full measure of Mr. Maxwell, his accomplices should be required to give a complete accounting of themselves as well.