Perp Walks

Last week, President George W. Bush "got tough" with alleged corporate crooks—with some of them, anyway. The papers carried photos of John Rigas and his son Timothy being carted off on charges of looting their company, Adelphia. There were also pics of WorldCom bigs Scott Sullivan and David F. Myers in custody. Sullivan was released on a $10 million bond, while Myers was sprung for $2 million—pocket change for guys like them.

Rumors are that the president is having a hissy fit over the unending series of scandals, even considering taking away guilty executives' vacation homes and yachts, just for good measure. Yet of the 10 large corporations that have recently crashed, taking thousands of innocent investors with them, eight still have the responsible players walking the streets, a little poorer perhaps, but in no danger of being arrested.

Meanwhile, the full story of the rape and pillage of America is still unfolding. Last week, the Financial Times ran the results of a survey revealing that top execs in the 25 biggest recent corporate collapses had built up fortunes from 1999 through 2001 totaling $3.3 billion. Richest of the rich: Ken Lay of Enron with $247 million and Gary Winnick of Global Crossing with $512 million.

Lay—along with his buds in the executive suite—famously ran Enron into the ground. He ripped off tens of thousands of electricity consumers in California, lying to them, manipulating the so-called free market while hiding the true nature of the corporate business from its stockholders and the government. In cold blood, he ruined the livelihood of thousands of its employees, screwing them out of any sort of "retirement." Surely Lay and the other chieftains at Enron ought to be charged with criminal malfeasance of some sort—fraud, conspiracy under the racketeering laws, obstruction of justice, or perjury, just for starters. Lay happens to be a major Bush family supporter, having financed both presidents' political conquests and acted as the frat brat's confidant on energy policy. Natch, he doesn't get charged with anything.

Beyond the political will to hold people like Lay accountable, we need a mechanism for going after the companies themselves, paving the way for placing them in receivership so they could be managed under public supervision until their acts were cleaned up. At the very least, firms with shoddy accounting and other dubious practices should be denied government business.

LICENSE TO ILL
Pro-choice advocates trying to block the sale of anti-abortion license plates have now lost two important legal battles. On July 16, a state judge ruled that Florida could indeed offer "Choose Life" tags and hand the proceeds to so-called crisis-pregnancy centers, all of them pro-life, many of them religiously affiliated. That edict mirrored a March decision in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Louisiana could move forward with its plan for the controversial tags.

The Center on Reproductive Law and Policy had argued that the plates amount to government financing for a political cause. Florida's law creating the fund-raiser, signed three years ago by Governor Jeb Bush, explicitly bars the money from going to any clinic "involved or associated with abortion activities." Seeing a clear breach of church-state separation, the center is appealing both cases. "The legislation is tailored to funnel money into anti-choice organizations," says center attorney Brigitte Amiri.

The specialty tags have begun to generate real cash in Florida, the only place where they are currently in use. They cost an extra $22 apiece annually, with all but $2 set to go directly from the county of purchase to the pro-life clinics. So far, the state has issued 29,165 Choose Life plates, drumming up $880,400. With its crayon scrawl atop a drawing of smiling children on a happy yellow background, says Arlene Conklin of Birthline/Lifeline in Palm Beach County, the plate is "very, very cute. . . . It's strictly for adoption; that's the sole purpose of it, for a mother planning to place her child for adoption."

An outfit called Choose Life Inc. is promoting the license plate concept across the country. Already, a number of states are signing on. South Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama have passed the legislation; 14 others are currently considering bills.

Choose Life's main task is to make sure any state selling the plates blocks the proceeds from going to pregnancy-care centers that offer abortion as an option to pregnant women. In an e-mail, spokesperson Russ Amerling wrote, "Since the purpose of the Choose Life plate is to fund the efforts of women who choose to place for adoption their child resulting from unwanted/unplanned pregnancies, it seemed logical to restrict funding to those agencies offering abortion alternatives."

But pro-choice advocates say the clinics favored by Choose Life don't deal fairly with clients. "Crisis-pregnancy centers entice women with free pregnancy tests and then provide them with misinformation in an effort to dissuade them from having an abortion," said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation. She says the pregnancy centers have been known to trick an unsuspecting client with fake ultrasound results in an effort to persuade her to have the child. They give misinformation like claiming abortion leads to breast cancer, she says, and have sometimes gone as far as tricking laboring women into signing away their newborns for adoption.

And since the centers aren't classified as medical facilities, they aren't required to protect the confidentiality of client information; in many instances, undecided women have gotten threatening phone calls, Saporta says.

TAKE A BRAKE
For Amtrak-haters, the derailment last week of the Capital Limited in the Maryland suburbs was yet another golden opportunity to trumpet the troubled railroad's approaching demise. With 97 people injured and 11 cars damaged, the railroad looked incompetent and seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The loss of so many cars at a time when Amtrak is already behind on repairs means it may be hard to keep the Washington-Chicago route up and running.

The naysayers have only one problem here—this wreck doesn't appear to have been Amtrak's fault. The government's investigation so far shows that the tracks had separated by as much 30 inches in the heat, but these weren't Amtrak tracks. They belong to the CSX Corporation, the gigantic freight operation that runs much of the freight traffic in the East.

During exceptionally hot stretches, CSX issues heat warnings, restricting cargo trains to 45 miles per hour, 10 mph slower than usual. Although CSX routinely imposes "heat orders" when temperatures reach or exceed 90 on consecutive days, the company hadn't told passenger trains to reduce their speed because they are much lighter. Instead, Amtrak runs had a ceiling of 70 mph. The train that derailed had a cap of 60 because one car was deemed unfit for faster travel. That's still 15 mph more than the freight-train limit.

This isn't the first time heat and excessive speed have cost lives. During an April hot spell, an Amtrak auto train derailed on CSX tracks in Georgia, killing four and injuring 150. In both cases, CSX said it had performed the necessary track maintenance.

CSX has drawn attention from government regulators. For the past two years, the Federal Railroad Administration had kept CSX under "special supervision" because of problems. And the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that in May it had launched an investigation into CSX maintenance and inspection procedures. But just two days before the Maryland derailment, the government lifted its special supervision of the freight line.

Research by Gabrielle Jackson, Cassandra Lewis and Caroline Ragon.
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