Rich Guys Facing Jail Time Can Still Win a Break
Rajat Gupta, the former McKinsey & Co. chief and pal of imprisoned inside trader Raj Rajaratnam, has one goal after being convicted last month of securities fraud: To convince federal Judge Jed Rakoff that he deserves minimal jail time.
There is a compelling public interest, after all, in keeping white-collar criminals on the street. The financial markets need liquidity, as any summer intern at a Washington lobbying firm can tell you, and we would be facing dark days if we lost our best talent at leaking confidential information. What good is a tipster in a place where high-frequency trading means swapping cigarettes for a batch of washed and folded laundry?
I don’t mean to suggest that his lawyers and throng of big- name business friends aren’t already doing a serviceable job of portraying Gupta as an honorable man who doesn’t belong in jail. Gupta’s lawyer, Gary P. Naftalis, pushed so hard to be allowed to tell the jurors about Gupta’s philanthropy that Rakoff had to offer a reminder: Even Mother Teresa would be judged on the evidence -- but presumably not her saintliness -- if charged with robbing a bank. And on the website www.friendsofrajat.com, a collection of supporters cite everything from Gupta’s role as a founding board member of the Global Fund for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis to his selfless offer to pay for a friend’s son to go to college.
With the sentencing slated for Oct. 18, there’s no harm in maxing out on every possible pitch as to why the man found guilty of leaking confidential information to Rajaratnam should get a break. The community-service alternatives alone are boundless. A not-for-profit to wage war on bullying of school- bus monitors comes to mind. Or maybe a faux-feminist foundation that cranks out op-ed articles on why it’s bad for women to receive equal pay to men.
Speaking of op-eds, it wouldn’t be the worst idea for him to get his worker bees cracking on a competition among news media outlets for first dibs on a Gupta byline. If Gupta’s lawyers balk, at least the public-relations people could ghostwrite a sermon on Gupta’s finer points, and hunt down a big name in business willing to put his or her name on it. You know, the types who are on important corporate boards and maybe even run global management-consulting firms.
White-collar defendants with bottomless checkbooks have been known to make colossal efforts to paint themselves as philanthropic pillars of the community. Sometimes that charity begins right around the time investigators deliver their first subpoena. Other times, as in the case of Gupta, magnanimity is a long-established practice.
You might wonder who would care if a rich person found guilty of a crime has sprinkled a few crumbs among the little people -- and juries often wonder the same thing. Experts in selecting and analyzing juries say that jurors in mock trials and focus groups get turned off when there’s too much talk about a defendant’s good works. Philip K. Anthony, the director of jury consulting at DecisionQuest Inc. in Los Angeles, says jurors often mention that wealthy defendants derive benefits from their largess, including tax write-offs and goodwill from business associates and the community.
Paul Neale, the chief executive officer of Doar Litigation Consulting -- the Lynbrook, New York-based firm that worked on the Gupta case -- declined to comment on the trial. But he did say he has never seen philanthropy as a “definitive factor” in 23 years of mock trials that his firm has conducted.
Reality, though, can play out differently. Richard M. Scrushy, the former CEO of HealthSouth Corp., was acquitted by a jury in 2005 on charges he directed an accounting fraud. The Birmingham, Alabama, community got a heavy dose of his pious side even during the trial. Scrushy delivered a lecture and donated $5,000 to a church attended by one of the jurors. He and his wife hosted a Bible show that aired five days a week on local TV during the months before the trial began.
Even Rajaratnam benefited from hundreds of supportive letters to the court. Federal Judge Richard Holwell acknowledged Rajaratnam’s “very significant dedication to others” at sentencing, giving him 11 years even though sentencing guidelines called for as much as 24 1/2 years.
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for Gupta to consider the example of Ronald Ferguson, the former CEO of General Reinsurance Corp. who faced a potential life sentence for helping American International Group Inc. deceive shareholders. Part of his pitch to the judge at sentencing was that he wanted to get back to his seminary education “and live my purpose to serve others.” Though his conviction was reversed on appeal and then settled in June in advance of a retrial, U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney sentenced him to only two years back in 2008. “We will never know why such a good man did such a bad thing,” Droney said. Ferguson’s supporters flooded the court with 379 letters.
A seminary stint may not be in Gupta’s future, but perhaps he could catch a break if he winds up filing an appeal and selects a new legal team with the magic touch.
In one of the most famous insider-trading cases of the late 1980s, Martin Siegel faced as much as 10 years in prison and a $260,000 fine. He had sold inside information in return for suitcases full of cash. Despite his crime, he spent only two months in prison, five years of probation, and received no fine.
It’s a pity that Gupta won’t have a shot at hiring the lawyer who shepherded Siegel to his propitious outcome. Siegel used Jed Rakoff, the guy who will decide what sentence suits Gupta’s crimes.
(Susan Antilla, who has written about Wall Street and business for three decades and is the author of “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room,” a book about sexual harassment at financial companies, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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