Stephen M. Cutler will depart the Securities and Exchange Commission later this month as one of the regulator's most active enforcement directors, but New York Post columnist Christopher Byron takes issue with what most casual observers would presume an impressive tenure.
As the SEC noted when it broke the news last week, Cutler's days as enforcement chief included oversight of investigations into some of the largest financial reporting failures in the nation's history, such as Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Qwest, Tyco and HealthSouth. Cutler's $750 million penalty against WorldCom, the SEC touted, is the largest enforcement action in the regulator's 71-year history.
Byron, however, writes that "those investigative scalps are not evidence of success so much as an indictment of the entire manner in which the law is enforced on [Wall Street] - after-the-fact and on-the-cheap."
Pointing a finger not so much at Cutler and his boss, SEC Chairman William H. Donaldson, as a politically-charged regulatory body that turns a blind eye to malfeasance during bullish times, Byron claims that the Enron fiasco should have been exposed at least a year before its January 2002 collapse. Citing concurrent press reports from Fortune magazine and The Street.com during the March 2001 timeframe, Byron asserts that "the accounting errors at Enron were in full public view to everyone."
"In fact," Byron tells the Post's 700,000 daily readers, "nearly every major corporate fraud of the 1990s surfaced first in the press - sometimes a year before anyone at the SEC, Cutler included, noticed anything amiss."
And in his parting shot, Byron advises Cutler and Donaldson "not try to run around taking credit for cleaning up problems [the SEC] let develop in the first place."