NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Three years have passed since Enron Corp. imploded and a tough state attorney general launched the first of many high-profile cases that have rocked Wall Street and captains of industry.
Since then, under the two-year-old law enacted by Congress to help clean up Corporate America, regulators have collected billions of dollars in fines and ill-gotten gains that they plan to return to investors bilked by massive corporate chicanery.
The fines included hundreds of millions of dollars paid by public companies including WorldCom, now called MCI (Research), and Computer Associates (Research), as well as mutual fund management firms.
But so far very little of that money has made its way into investor pockets.
"It's really a period of uncertainty," said Bruce Carton, executive director of Securities Class Action Services, an arm of Institutional Shareholder Services, which advises large investors.
The reasons are complex, but they start with a two year-old regulatory crackdown that has resulted in nearly $5 billion worth of settlements -- at least half of which has been earmarked for burned investors.
They also have to do with government bureaucracy. On top of the usual court delays, the regulatory body that's overseeing the distribution of these so-called Fair Funds has never dealt with such a hefty volume of cases.
Meanwhile, the money sits in interest-bearing accounts.
Splitting $435 million into atoms
Just which investors are owed money, how much they're due and when they might expect a check in the mail is anybody's guess.
"You have to have a lot of humility and recognize it's just about impossible to get money back to people who were harmed" by corporate shenanigans, said Nell Minow, co-founder of The Corporate Library, an independent investment research firm.
"It's just about impossible to get money back to them in a way that even indirectly benefits them," she added.
There are too many investors and records are too incomplete for anyone other than large institutional shareholders to recover a sizable chunk of money, experts in securities cases say.
Take, for instance, the $1.4 billion in settlements that the SEC and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer brokered with Wall Street banks accused of hyping companies in research reports to help win lucrative investment banking work from those companies.
Of that settlement pool, some $435 million has been set aside for investors who bought stock based on the hype and were left holding the bag when the stock market and Internet bubbles popped in 2000.
The typical class-action takes just over a year and a half from the initial handshake marking a settlement to distribution of the money to investors, according to Barrak, Rodos & Bacine, a law firm that sues companies on behalf of their shareholders.
In the Wall Street research analyst case, the initial deal was struck two years ago and investors still have a long wait ahead of them.
Last month a court-appointed administrator submitted a plan to the New York federal judge overseeing the case for distributing the money. The judge, William Pauley III, has yet to rule on it.
The plan should be publicly available next month, said Francis McGovern, the Duke University law school professor charged with divvying up the $435 million.
While court approval of McGovern's plan is a crucial next step, it's only the beginning. It's likely to take at least another year for claims to be processed.
But this much is known: In cases like this, investors rarely get back more than a small slice of their total losses.
Many Fair Funds
Carton, of Institutional Shareholder Services, is not surprised that the distribution of the analyst research fund and other like-sized pools of money has taken this long.
Until two years ago, he said, the biggest civil fine that the SEC had ever levied was $10 million, nowhere near the hundreds of millions of dollars that companies have shelled out in the last few years.
What's more, before Congress mandated massive corporate reform two years ago, a big chunk of the money that the SEC got out of corporations for violating securities laws went to government coffers.
Since the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform, nearly all of the money from government enforcement actions goes to a "Fair Fund" set up for each individual case and administered separately.
Given the size of the settlements, the number of Fair Funds now being administered, and the responsibility the SEC has to disburse the money, Carton was not surprised that the process is taking a long time.
"These huge settlements are a new phenomenon for the SEC," said Carton. "I don't know how else you would handle it."