Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Studies in Black and White

I was in a downtown working class bar when the Michael Jackson verdict was announced on Monday, facing a TV monitor that featured sports. The audio came from other sets carrying the Jackson trial, and it seemed as if these jocks were lip-synching the commentary.

The reaction of the patrons was mixed. "I guess now it's okay to molest little boys." "He was probably guilty of some stuff, but it seemed the family was trying to scam him." "You are freaks!" (To the cheering fans.)

So a rich black man pretending to be white gets off. Now, across the country, a rich white man pretending to be black may be next to walk. His jury has remained hung for two weeks, and that's just the way the big boys like it.

I have been following the trial of HealthSouth founder and CEO Richard Scrushy because it seems so emblematic of justice in Bushworld, where money, faith and spin are core values, and flagrant compassion is second only to flag-waving patriotism.

Scrushy is being prosecuted for inflating the earnings of HealthSouth by nearly $2.7 billion, increasing the value of his stock while deceiving investors. It's the first case against a CEO charged under Sarbanes-Oxley laws designed to penalize executives who knowingly sign false financial statements.

This seems to be one of those garden variety instances where a megalomaniacal CEO browbeats subordinates into "fixing" earnings problems with fancy accounting, while insulating himself from the fraud, and believing that he will be able to make up the difference down the road before anyone finds out. (I've read the final arguments, but will spare you. If you want the gory details, there's a blog called Report from Birmingham that has been following the case closely and intelligently.)

What makes Scrushy's case interesting is his strategy for getting off. Not simply blaming the many CFOs who worked for him, left the company and are now copping a plea. That's pretty standard. Not for claiming to be in the dark about the financials, despite being an astute control freak and insisting on optimistic forecasts that the numbers didn't support. That's also par for the course. No, it's how he's played the faith and race cards and so transparently pimped to get a predominantly black jury that might view him sympathetically.

Based in Birmingham, HealthSouth is a growing health conglomerate that provides rehabilitation services. Scrushy may have actually started and run a good company for a while, but sometimes that isn't enough. By the time of the alleged fraud, he was on his third wife, a stylish minister's daughter who seems to have God and her husband confused, and who founded a company that created comfy loungewear incorporating that all-important perky bra. I do believe that's the founder herself modeling the product in pre-indictment days.

They lived in Palm Beach, belonged to a white church and had all the toys down there, except for the Birmingham show horse stables where the judge in the case bonded with one of his daughters from an earlier marriage.

The man is the Donald Trump, maybe Saddam Hussein, of Birmingham. As 60 Minutes reported:

In Birmingham, you can drive on the Richard Scrushy Parkway, and to the Richard Scrushy Campus at Jefferson State Community College. There's the Richard Scrushy Building, the Richard Scrushy Library and the Richard Scrushy Ball Field.

There used to be a Richard Scrushy Statue, but after someone spray-painted the word "thief" on it, and a radio DJ urged people to pull it down like Saddam's statue in Baghdad, it was removed.


Suddenly, he's back in Birmingham, visibily affiliated with (and heavily contributing to) an African-American congregation, and hosting a religious TV show with his wife. He mounts a strenuous PR campaign, with a self-laudatory web site, complete with a bio emphasizing his birthplace of Selma, Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement. He surrounds himself with a black defense team, led by Donald Watkins, a big man in Birmingham, whose main claim to wider fame was his failure to buy the Minnesota Vikings. The Watkins summation was a bald appeal to associate a vote for acquittal with the courageous acts of past juries who rendered verdicts that helped strike down American apartheid. (Scrushy's management team at HealthSouth, in contrast, was distictly non-minority.)

Folks, this is an arrogant rich man who is hiding behind Christianity, his trophy wife, and a subsidized legion to bamboozle you. His posse outside court appearances resembles the King of Pop's, heavy with black preachers in good suits. The only figure missing is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and I'm sure this week, after wringing out his pitiful share of visibility from the Michael Jackson case, he's looking for a new gig.

I won't try to encapsulate all the twists and turns here. I'd saved pertinent quotes and salient facts, but I can't locate them right now, and I realize they don't matter. The facts don't matter. The rotten moral core and cynical behavior don't matter. Even the inept defense arguments don't matter.

If you have enough money in America, you can murder your wife, sleep with children, bang a hotel worker, invade Iraq or lie about your earnings, and you will get off. Where are those activist judges when we really need them?

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