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All the corporate scandals that fit, we print

There are days like today when the name of this section of the newspaper should be switched from Business to Monkey Business. Or What Were They Thinking? Or simply Scandals.

After all, the name of any news sections should reflect what appears on its pages. And today, well, readers will get more than their fill of corruption, self-enrichment, financial short-cutting and corporate investigations.

Just look at the stories.

On this page, there's a report from Alabama, where former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy faces 85 federal counts in an alleged $2.7-billion fraud that financed a lavish life of big boats, fancy cars, mansions and jewels.

Then there's a story about whether Florida's cautious state pension plan will join the others already pulling more than $4.3-billion out of Putnam Investment funds after the mutual fund company was charged last week with securities fraud.

That's not to be confused with the tale on page 2E about the Securities and Exchange Commission's pursuit of Prudential Securities brokers in Boston for allegedly engaging in improper market-timing trades in mutual funds (trades basic customers are not allowed).

Don't forget today's coverage of Wal-Mart, the target of a grand jury investigation into the hiring of illegal immigrants.

Why such a barrage of corporate wrongdoing?

Part of the answer is timing. Enron's remarkable saga of corruption and collapse forced at least some regulators to start doing their jobs of policing business. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's aggressive pursuit of sleazy Wall Street practices _ followed by his crackdown on mutual fund practices that profited rich clients at the expense of others _ has finally embarrassed the SEC to do more of its job as watchdog.

Frankly, it would not hurt if more readers got fed up with all the self-dealing business scams out there and demanded tougher oversight.

That does not mean cracking down on every business. It does mean nailing the wrongdoers.

Scrushy, 51, is accused of cooking his company's books, then lying to cover up the accounting fraud. His indictment seeks the forfeiture of more than $278.7-million of Scrushy property, including several residences, boats, aircraft and luxury automobiles.

Putnam is among a number of mutual fund companies caught giving preferential trading privileges to wealthy clients in exchange for their business.

It all started several weeks ago when Spitzer accused brokers at Bank of America of allowing a rich customer to engage in after-hours trading in mutual funds. Since then, the Janus mutual fund company was nailed for allowing similar practices. Dozens of other firms have been subpoenaed, including Fidelity Investments, Morgan Stanley and Vanguard Group.

Now the SEC and even congressional panels are getting into the act and lambasting the mutual fund industry.

Hey, if we had more room in today's business section, we could have brought you plenty more updates on corruption, including:

+ Enron former chief financial officer Andy Fastow _ facing almost 100 charges of self-dealing tied to the Houston energy trading giant's collapse _ wants his trial moved out of Texas in the hopes there are jurors somewhere who are not familiar with his alleged scams. (Try Mars.)

+ Fastow's wife, Lea, has pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns as a result of her role at Enron. Unlike husband Andy, the Houston Chronicle says, she will not go out of state but likely will be tried by a Houston jury.

+ Still out of reach from prosecutors are Enron's top two: ex-chairman Ken Lay and ex-CEO Jeff Skilling. My guess is they will eventually face charges, like the dozens of former Enron middle managers already targeted by investigators as easier marks.

There isn't room in today's business section to update the story of Tyco International ex-CEO Dennis Kozlowski, now on trial in a Manhattan criminal court on corruption charges (although you'll note a short item revealing that the executives trying to clean up the mess Kozlowski left behind plan to cut 7,200 jobs and sell off 50 businesses.) And then there are the execs at WorldCom. And Adelphia. And Global Crossing.

Somebody ought to publish the Encyclopedia of Corporate Scandal.

Last month, the watchdog group Transparency International issued a list ranking 133 nations by their level of corporate bribes, kickbacks and government corruption. The No. 1 and most corrupt country: Bangladesh. The least corrupt country at No. 133: Finland.

This annual list ranks the United States at No. 116 _ less corrupt than 115 other nations, but more corrupt than 17 others.

After reading today's business section, maybe it's time to reconsider our ranking.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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