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That's a lot of fraud

It's hard to believe the U.S. Justice Department got 1,236 fraud convictions against corporate officers over the past five years. Who knew there were so many dysfunctional executives out there?

Did you know that the president has a Corporate Fraud Task Force? That's right, he does. It's led by the deputy attorney general, whoever that is.

Anyway, this task force has apparently been very busy. Over a five-year period since its inception, the task force claims 1,236 corporate fraud convictions, including 214 CEOs and presidents, 53 CFOs, 23 corporate counsels, and 129 vice presidents.

That's a lot of fraud. Who knew there were so many dysfunctional executives in this great nation? The dark side of greed and capitalism must be pretty attractive, huh?

I also wonder what these executives' boards of directors were doing while all this fraud was going on? Aren't they supposed to be looking out for shareholders? Isn't that what corporate governance is all about?

Anyway, members of the task force have successfully brought a laundry list of fraud and other charges against executives of Adelphia, Cendant, Comverse, Computer Associates, Dynegy, Enron, Enterasys, Homestore, Imclone, Impath, Monster, Network Associates, Prudential Securities, Qwest, Refco, and WorldCom.

The Justice Department has also recovered $1 billion in ill-gotten gains and distributed the funds to victims of corporate fraud. Want to know how much money shareholders actually lost in all those fraud cases? Me too, but I'm confident the number has two or three more zeros than what was recovered.

According to a Department of Justice fact sheet, President Bush created the task force in July of 2002 "to restore public and investor confidence in America's corporations following a wave of major corporate scandals." Did it work? Has your confidence in America's corporations been restored? Not mine.

You know what I think? I think it's great that the government is cracking down on white-collar crime. Sure, it's sad that so many officers of public companies have such flexible views on ethics and morality. But you know, if that's the way it's got to be, then I say lock 'em up...without the severance package.

While that might be rewarding, I have to admit it doesn't help investors. If, like me, your confidence in America's corporations has not been restored, there's only one thing you can do about it. Don't let your investment and retirement strategy depend on a branch of the government to cover your butt.

The only way to truly mitigate the potential risk of corporate fraud is to diversify your portfolio, plain and simple. If you don't, you're asking for trouble. I hate to say this, but with these kinds of fraud conviction stats, anyone with 5 percent or 10 percent of their assets in one company's stock really doesn't deserve to keep it.