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Advice to President-Elect Barack Obama about Combating White Collar Crime From a Convicted Felon

To President-Elect Barack Obama:

While our capital markets require reform, no amount of regulation or oversight can be effective unless those persons charged with carrying it out, have the proper amount experience, knowledge, competence, and professional skepticism to successfully perform their respective jobs and responsibilities. As the cold-blooded and heartless criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie, I had no fear of oversight from outside or independent board members and our external auditors. I took advantage of their lack of requisite skills, knowledge, and experience to effectively carry out my crimes. If you want to see capitalism succeed as an engine for our future economic prosperity, I respectfully ask you to first consider the issue of competence, before looking at the issue of regulation and oversight.

Window Dressing Boards of Directors

We need better standards of qualification for public company board members. Too often, company boards are packed with people with great resumes but such persons have no specialized experience and training to effectively carry out their functions or boards are packed with cronies of company management. Instead, we must require that board members have the proper amount of specialized education, background, and experience necessary to perform their duties effectively. We do not need well meaning, intelligent people, serving in positions they are not well suited for, since in many cases they make ineffective Board members. The time for “window dressing” must end.

Today, too many board members are appointed for “window dressing” purposes, rather than their specific competence to carry out their duties. Michelle Leder’s blog, Footnoted.org once noted:

So where do former members of the House and Senate, not to mention Governors and former Cabinet members go when they exit from the political stage? Many of them wind up filling seats on boards of directors.

For example, your new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on Freddie Mac’s (NYSE: FRE) board of directors, after serving in Clinton's administration. I am assuming that Mr. Emanuel took the job and served on Freddie Mac's board from 2000 to 2001 with the best of intentions. However, like many other well meaning but gullible board members, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the hands of an unscrupulous management team.

According to the SEC complaint filed against Freddie Mac:

…Freddie Mac misreported its net income in 2000, 2001 and 2002 by 30.5 percent, 23.9 percent and 42.9 percent, respectively. Furthermore, Freddie Mac’s senior management exerted consistent pressure to have the company report smooth and dependable earnings growth in order to present investors with the image of a company that would continue to generate predictable and growing earnings.

“As has been seen in so many cases, Freddie Mac’s departure from proper accounting practices was the result of a corporate culture that sought stable earnings growth at any cost,” said Linda Chatman Thomsen, the SEC’s Director of Enforcement. “Investors do not benefit when good corporate governance takes a back seat to a single-minded drive to achieve earnings targets.”

Note: Bold print and italics added by me.

Rahm Emanuel was not named in the SEC’s complaint against Freddie Mac. However, in a statement before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Acting Director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, James B. Lockhart III noted:

For the most part, the same long-tenured shareholder-elected Directors oversaw the same CEO, COO, and General Counsel of Freddie Mac from 1990 to 2003. The non-executive Directors allowed the past performance of those officers to color their oversight. Directors should have asked more questions, pressed harder for resolution of issues, and not automatically accepted the rationale of management for the length of time needed to address identified weaknesses and problems. The oversight exercised by the Board might have been more vigorous if there had been a regular turnover of shareholder-elected Directors or if Directors had not expected to continue to serve on the Board until the mandatory retirement age. Conversely, the terms of the presidentially appointed Directors are far too short, averaging just over 14 months, for them to play a meaningful role on the Board. The position is an anachronism that should be repealed so shareholders can elect all Directors. The Board of Directors was apprised of control weaknesses, the efforts of management to shift income into future periods and other issues that led to the restatement, but did not recognize red flags, failed to make reasonable inquiries of management, or otherwise failed in its duty to follow up on matters brought to its attention.

Note: Bold print and italics added by me.

The problem is that intelligent and well meaning board of directors are often duped by unscrupulous company management teams who take advantage of their lack of requisite skills and professional cynicism.

Prospective qualified board members must know how to make effective inquiries and spot "red flags." They must know how to ask questions, who to direct their questions to, and how to handle false and misleading answers by management with effective follow up questions. Such skills only come adequately qualified board members who have proper training, education, and experience before joining company boards.

Lack of Truly Independent and Properly Qualified Audit Committee Members

So-called independent audit committee members of boards or directors are less independent and less competent than the external auditors, who they oversee. Too many audit committee members have no formal educational background in accounting and auditing or specialized training in fraud detection.

Many so-called “independent” board members own stock and receive stock options in their respective companies, while independent external auditors cannot own stock or receive stock-based compensation from their audit clients. Owning company stock and receiving stock-based compensation, provides a disincentive to effective independent audit committee oversight of financial reporting and can adversely affect an audit committee member’s professional skepticism. Therefore, audit committee members cannot be considered truly "independent" if they own company stock or receive stock-based compensation. I suggest that our securities laws be amended to require truly independent and adequately qualified audit committees.

Lack of Properly Trained Auditors

External auditors receive too little or no training in forensic accounting, fraud detection, or criminology. Most Certified Public Accountants never take a single college level course devoted exclusively to issues of white collar crime or internal controls and many important subjects covered in the CPA licensing exam are learned after graduation in a cram CPA exam review course.

College level accounting education needs to be reformed to teach future CPAs the necessary tools to do battle in audits against corporate crooks who take advantage of their lack of skills. We should mandate that a larger proportion of continuing professional education, required by CPAs to maintain their licenses, be devoted to issues of white collar crime and fraud detection.

Not Enough Law Enforcement Resources Devoted to White Collar Crime

While I never feared Crazy Eddie’s board of directors and auditors, I did fear the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, I doubt that many criminals have such fear for the SEC and FBI today.

Both the SEC and FBI are under-resourced and overwhelmed and as a result, they are unable to successfully investigate too many complicated white collar crime cases, unless such cases are handed to them on a silver platter by others. The most experienced SEC and FBI personnel are leaving government work for better paying private sector jobs. Therefore, if you really want criminals to think twice before executing their crimes, I suggest that you beef up our nation's investigative and law enforcement resources.

Our capital markets depend on the integrity of financial information that is supposed to be insured by external auditors, audit committees, and consistently effective law enforcement. Inadequately trained independent external auditors, the first line of defense for insuring the integrity of financial reporting, are supervised by even less competent and less independent audit committees. On top of that, our regulators and law enforcement agencies lack the required resources to effectively prosecute many crimes enabled by the lack of effective audits and company oversight by boards of directors. Therefore, we face a perfect storm for disaster, as the cancer of white collar crime destroys our economic fabric and inflicts a collective harm on our great society.

If you want capitalism to succeed as an engine of prosperity for our great nation, I ask you to heed my my advice based on my experience as a cold blooded convicted felon.

Respectfully:

Sam E. Antar (former Crazy Eddie CFO and a convicted felon)

PS: While Rahm Emanuel may not have been an effective board member of Freddie Mac, he can provide valuable insight to you about the perils of lack of effective oversight by boards of directors. After all, the wisest people are those that learn from past mistakes.

In addition, I will continue to provide you with more unsolicited advice from time-to-time. You can learn a lot from a convicted felon who scammed the system and took advantage of gullible human beings in ways your advisors never dreamed of.

Disclosure: Registered Democrat (convicted felons can vote in New York State but don't get to serve on juries - which I don't mind) and I vote both Democrat and Republican depending on the best candidate for the job. In addition, I have no position in Freddie Mac securities.

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Comments

Donn Gilray said…
Dear Sam,

I appreciate your comments about the window dressed boards of directors leading some comapanies. I completed a Coporate Governance class last semester and am currently taking a course in Fraudulent Accounting Investigations.

In the corporate governance class, we were led by Dr. Constatine of the University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. "Connie" is also the founder and executive director of the Institute of Excellence in Corporate Governance.

Although the appoitnment of boards has moved from the "good ole boy" network to a measured mix of internal and independent board members, there is still a stigma of board members being appointed by a friend of a friend of a friend. Even family legacies are in place in some boards.

The three required committees - Compensation, Audit, and Nominating committees are necessarily chaired by those who have been subjectively judged to have the qualifications to lead their respective committtee. I believe you are correct in requiring certain educational and specific experience - at least to chair these committees.

It is doubtful that President-Elect Obama will read your words, but the principle of more qualified oversight seems to be a common thread between your comments and his campaign "promises". The victims of fraud, as you well know, are the rank and file citizens of America who have a distant trust in the corporate governance and who have based their retirement portfolios on the stock market performance.

Fraud directly affects a company's bottom line. $1.00 of fraud against a company who has a 10% net income to gross sales ratio has to earn $10 in gross sales to cover that $1.00.

Again, thank you for your efforts and using your knowledge for the improvement of our oversight system.

Donn Gilray
Rowlett, TX
Sam E. Antar said…
Donn:

Thank you for your input. If Dr. Constatine ever needs a guest speaker, please let me know.

Sam

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