Monday, June 19, 2006

What began as a creative solution among a handful of technology firms to address recruitment issues soon became common practice in Silicon Valley. It appears the practice also became a way to enrich chief executives and other top managers.

The result is a nationwide scandal with major accounting, corporate governance, tax and disclosure ramifications. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of companies are caught up in a giant civil and criminal law enforcement sweep by the Justice Department, the I.R.S. and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It is no coincidence that stock option abuses are once again taking center stage in an unfolding scandal. The easy money that options can rain down on recipients motivated many of the numbers games that companies played with their quarterly earnings during the stock market boom, leading to numerous accounting fraud prosecutions at Enron, WorldCom and others.

In the latest scandal, companies seem to have handed out stock options that were already "in the money" on the date of grant, undermining the idea of using options as a pay-for-performance tool. The practice appears to have been widespread from the early 1990's to 2002, and possibly beyond.