There's no place like home David Wittig went from Wall Street wunderkind to titan in Topeka. Is the Big House next?
By Andy Serwer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Is there such a thing as a FORTUNE cover curse? Despite a few CEOs who inevitably toppled after we showed their mugs, the anecdotal evidence suggests not. Bill Gates, for instance, has been on the cover more than anyone, and he's still the richest man in the world. Ah, but then there's the intriguing case of David Wittig--FORTUNE cover boy, Nov. 24, 1986.

The story was titled "Wall Street's Overpaid Young Stars," and the point was that these young Masters of the Universe were too flush not to fall. The cover--rather notorious at the time--featured our man Wittig, cigar in hand. It read: "At 31, Kansas-born David Wittig makes $500,000 a year at Kidder Peabody." Said Wittig in the piece: "I try not to let the business go to my head." (Tried but failed, it seems to me!) Word on the Street was that Wittig's superiors at Kidder were none too pleased with their wunderkind's 15 minutes of fame. Life went on for him, though, and within a few years he had drifted over to Salomon Brothers. The story might have ended there (with Wittig in middle age moving on to some Connecticut hedge fund) but for two things: Wittig's ambition and his Midwestern roots.

Wittig grew up in Prairie Village, Kan., graduated from KU, and never got the wheat fields out of his blood. And so, after working on Wall Street for some 18 years, he looked to return home--but it had to be in a big way. While at Salomon, Wittig had done work for Kansas's largest utility, Western Resources--now called Westar Energy--based in Topeka. Its CEO, John Hayes, like so many other pedal-to-the-metal utility execs, wanted to move his company into newly deregulated businesses. In 1995, Hayes brought in Wittig to be his head of corporate strategy--to buy businesses, in other words.

It didn't take long for Wittig to begin making deals. First he set his sights on rival Kansas City Power & Light, which Hayes had been courting. Spurning Western, KCP&L had agreed to merge with another power company. Wittig broke up the deal with a higher bid and embarked on a legal battle to corral KCP&L.

Wittig also began a hostile takeover of alarm company ADT, buying some 24% of its stock. He eventually lost out to Tyco (small world!) but reaped an $800 million profit when Tyco bought Western's ADT shares. Meanwhile, in 1998 Wittig succeeded Hayes as CEO, skipping over several higher-level Westar execs, who subsequently left the firm. Wittig then bought a different alarm company, Protection One. Jim Zakoura, a lawyer who represents Westar's large industrial customers, says the Protection One acquisition has "sucked away as much as $2 billion since 1998." (A Protection One spokesperson counters that the loss is a little more than half that.) Plus, Protection One's accounting has been suspect. The SEC began investigating Protection One's numbers, and Westar's stock sank, helping scotch its bid to buy KCP&L.

But more trouble was on the way. The Kansas Corporation Commission, the state's public service agency, started an inquiry regarding a proposed restructuring by the company. And then the U.S. attorney's office stepped in. The feds began investigating use of corporate aircraft and other expense-related matters. Shareholders were miffed that Wittig earned tens of millions of dollars over the past four years.

Critics screamed for Wittig's head, but he hung on--until this fall. In November, Wittig and a Topeka banker were indicted on money-laundering charges. Investigators say Wittig and his banker pal falsely borrowed $1.5 million so that the banker could invest in an Arizona real estate deal. Penny-ante stuff really, "but," says Zakoura, "the whole aircraft thing and other expense issues are still being investigated." In other words, there may be more charges. On Nov. 22, David Wittig resigned as CEO of Westar. (Through his lawyer, Wittig declined to comment. The lawyer said in a statement that Wittig "is not guilty of these charges.")

Wittig's career has really been amazing. He was a New York investment banker circa Bonfire of the Vanities. A cowboy utility CEO during the heady days of deregulation. And now he's been indicted. It's all right on trend. Some in Kansas suggest that Wittig was a good guy, and it was New York that turned him bad. Or maybe, some will say, being on FORTUNE's cover jinxed him. But I'm not buying either of those arguments. You are who you are. You make your own fate.