The cult of the CEO (as some business gurus now call it) promoted a celebration of testosterone and greed that has coarsened the culture and damaged economic life in severe ways. The adoration of corporate executives–those with a tough-guy disregard for their employees and social norms–seems to be receding now, along with stock prices and disappearing profits, but it does resemble a utopian cult, in which the followers obsessively worship a few strong guys said to possess superhuman qualities. The major media were taken in, but so were many sophisticates. The New Yorker published many admiring character studies of these new titans and even resurrected J.P. Morgan as a worthy icon for our time. Now that icons are falling all around, it seems daft that so many respectable, presumably rational citizens fell under the spell. The establishment’s first line of defense–“only a few bad apples”–has been completely crumpled by events. Leaders from finance are now solemnly promising “business ethics” reforms, anxious to restore “trust” in a system that runs on other people’s money.
William Lerach, the plaintiffs’ lawyer reviled and feared by corporate executives, brings a sharp-edged and refreshingly anti-establishment voice to the emerging debate over how to reform corporate governance. Based in San Diego, Lerach is a fiercely opportunistic advocate for victimized shareholders and has brought hundreds of lawsuits against corporations large and small, usually for fraud. This is clearly his moment in history. Lerach’s list of current defendants starts with Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, AT&T, Lucent and Qwest, along with many other firms where investors were duped and burned. His law firm, Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, dominates the field and has an active docket of some 2,000 cases, roughly half of which involve stock-market abuses.
More significant, Milberg Weiss is opening up promising new territory for class-action litigation that could make Lerach and other trial lawyers into an important force for corporate reform–lawsuits that curb the grand larceny but also change operating routines and power structures within companies. The law firm has already won a string of minor victories in which corporations, in addition to paying cash settlements, were compelled to adopt various internal reforms–some of the same governance reforms that shareholder advocates have been pushing for years in proxy fights, usually without success.
In the present climate, Lerach and partners propose to up the ante. They are aggressively recruiting major pension funds and labor unions as plaintiffs with the promise that shareholder litigation can produce major reforms in corporate behavior–far beyond anything Congress is likely to enact or that the “self-regulating” measures proposed by financial leaders would accomplish. Their venture is untested, but has a potential to generate real leverage over the titans and a measure of power for victimized groups like investors, workers and communities.
As Lerach discusses the current scandals, one begins to grasp why he evokes fear and loathing in the executive class. He has a simple explanation for what generated the greedy excesses–the bloated CEO salaries and stock options, the insider loans and fraudulent bookkeeping to pump up stock prices. “Penis envy,” he said. “I don’t want to use the term, but that’s almost what it is. It’s like, ‘Gee, when the CEO of that company over there is making $20 million, I ought to make $24 million.’ Then the other guy says, ‘Well, if he makes $24 million, then I’ve got to make $30 million.'”