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In favor of Corporate McCarthyism
Why it's better to shoot first and ask questions later.
March 25, 2002: 7:00 PM EST
By Adam Lashinsky, CNN/Money Contributing Columnist

PALO ALTO, Calif. (CNN/Money) - Joseph P. Nacchio, CEO of beleaguered telecommunications titan Qwest Communications, shares a handful of distinctions with former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

Nacchio is responsible for presiding over the loss of billions of dollars in shareholder value. So was Skilling. He clashed with Wall Street analysts by verbally abusing one of them during a conference call. So did Skilling. They even share the honor of having once worked for prestigious companies, Nacchio at AT&T, Skilling at consultant McKinsey & Co.

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It is in the whining category, however, where their similarities are strongest. Skilling has lashed out at members of Congress who want to convict first and ask questions later. That's some whining that arguably needed to be done. Less acceptable is Nacchio's now oft-repeated lament that the witch hunt for other Enrons amounts to "corporate McCarthyism." (And yes, Qwest often makes the "who's-the-next Enron" lists.)

Whoa. Is it possible that Nacchio has any idea about the comparison he's making? Here's a guy who, according to Qwest's (Q: Research, Estimates) last proxy statement, was paid "an aggregate of $10,735,861 between 1997 and 1999 to compensate him for benefits that he lost or forfeited as a result of leaving his former employment." And he's likening himself and his company to artists, performers and writers who were denied their ability to earn a living because of their political beliefs?

One can almost imagine Nacchio being called before Congress:

Committee Chairman: "Mr. Nacchio, are you, have you ever been, or do you know any accountants?"

Committee Member: "Mr. Nacchio, is true that you have been known to attend -- and participate in -- the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach as well as CEO retreats at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia?"

Another committee member: "I have here in my hand a list of 72 known CEOs who made contributions to one of the major political parties."

Preposterous? Of course. If CEOs and other bigwigs like Qwest's Nacchio feel like they're being picked on, tough luck. Your average communist-sympathizing script writer in the 1950s didn't have clauses in their contracts, as Nacchio does, that provide for a payment equal to two year's salary if his company gets bought by another. Most of them, presumably, didn't get two years' worth of "benefits, including welfare benefits, for two years following termination," as Nacchio would.

Turning points
HP's big day
Network Associates' shell game

Corporate CEOs have had quite a run. They're not entrepreneurs. But still they've been able to accumulate wealth in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars by presiding over the shareholders' assets. And now they're a little hot under the collar that the grubby public is questioning their motives.

The outrage has spread to fat-cat-lawyers-turned-government-officials. Witness SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt, bemoaning "guilt by occupation" because members of a Senate committee rudely pointed out that Pitt has represented all of the Big Five accounting firms at one point or another.

Is this unfair? On the contrary. Question every potential Enron. Challenge the motives and biases of every public official. It's been too long in coming.  Top of page

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