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Ramming The Magicians

By Terry Joseph
July 03, 2002

Many Trini-born residents here in Miami are admittedly deriving vicarious amusement from the flurry of big business stock-swindles currently being exposed.

Given the mind-boggling scope of these scams, some say the resulting upheaval on Wall Street dramatically disproves a hitherto widely held view that only the Caribbean is capable of producing a superior brand of con artist.

During the past week, WorldCom, owners of global telecommunications giant MCI, was disgraced by a US$3.8 billion fraud, Xerox admitted "major irregularities" in its accounting and billionaire Martha Stewart came under the microscope for last December's sudden and suspicious dumping of a large bundle of her ImClone shares.

Already someone people here love to hate, Stewart, prolific author and TV's top culinary expert, has quickly become the butt of a fresh slew of jokes making the rounds; the most popular of which suggests she will now begin publishing "crook-books" instead.

But it isn't all funny. CEO's often described as "magicians" for sleight of hand abilities at turning around struggling corporations are tumbling from grace, losing their grip on wands earlier conferred by the very American media now unearthing information that demands a second glance at some of those meteoric ascendancies.

Veteran business commentators are meanwhile desperately trying to wiggle out of questions arising from their failure to identify and expose accounting inconsistencies, with some latter-day journalists arguing their predecessors were simply overwhelmed by corporate panache and consequently less-than-vigilant.

If that be true in the land of transparency, there is a better than even chance that in Trinidad and Tobago, where honesty about business operations is seldom easy to come by, a number of corporations may be getting away with equally outrageous scams.

For starters, Trini businessmen are routinely evasive on delicate issues and frequently threaten to withdraw lucrative advertising from media houses pursuing unflattering stories, leaving journalists with the burden of extricating truth from stone walls.

Outward and visible signs of continuing success are often little more than cleverly manipulated versions of reality. Calypso historian and performer Chalkdust committed what is perhaps the best-remembered blooper in this regard, with his proudly sung salute to the acumen of local businessman Ram Kirpalani.

"If you can't run the country, call in Kirpalani," Chalkie suggested in the catchy chorus of his 1980s calypso "Ram the Magician", suggesting the popular businessman had been so successful at guiding his corporation, he would make an equally astute consultant to Government on affairs of State.

As it turned out, a more accurate reading of Mr Kirpalani's ability at handling business turned up such devastating data, the mogul eventually committed suicide by a thoroughly painful route, presumably to avoid witnessing the imminent collapse of his empire.

Now, none of this should be taken to mean success is invariably tainted by skullduggery or attained in spite of incompetence. What may be the clear majority of businessmen have scored their achievements by completely lawful means and good ol' fashioned hard work.

But we have witnessed the collapse of firms like International Trust, where investors came away with as little as seven cents from each dollar placed in care of the company. Other once-respected enterprises eventually offered even less redress (in some cases, nothing at all) when the whistle was finally blown.

Businessmen who use other people's money to build empires, then recklessly squander the gains or grow nonchalant with the trust reposed in them are guilty of criminal offences and should be jailed with no more ceremony than common thieves.

Journalists who attempt to expose such delinquency are not the villains. To saddle them with convenient moralizing about jeopardising the financial system by untimely disclosure of sensitive information only compounds the offence.

To investigate the financial health of the Hindu Credit Union or rationalize Caroni Ltd are not intrinsically racist issues, but safeguards against those who may be tempted to treat other people's money lightly, confident that their connections would help cover up indiscretions or blatant financial shenanigans.

On the global scale, we have learnt bitter lessons from CEO's of Enron and Tyco and the likes of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, men whose final assessments dangle somewhere between that of brilliant innovators and clever scoundrels. At home, we are all quite familiar with the list. So when the wife of former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday says if she really had $10 million in a London bank account the first thing she would do is buy up all the newspapers in the country and "make them worthy of your readership", we can only hope her ideal condition -however awkwardly put - does not exclude ramming the "magicians." Because like the rest of us, I feel certain Mrs Panday would wish to safeguard whatever little money she can honestly admit to owning.

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