Words matter. I heard Art Leach say that one time in open court, in defense of his client. And they do. As much as the public would rather have a smoking gun and bloody fingerprints, the trials of Richard Scrushy and Donald Siegelman were never so easy. Observers from various quarters of the public have always had, for a broad range of reasons, a desire for a certain directed outcome. And that’s what we do. We listen to the words and we form an opinion based on our informed belief. Where this stream of beliefs intersects the media, storylines are forged and etched and maintained. And the words that fit into the storyline are highlighted while the ones that don’t fit are thrown away. The jury will disregard.
The turn of the century era of corporate-fraud has given way to an unparalled era of legally sanctioned greed that has led the economy to the brink of collapse. It seems that practically every day there is another bailout, another hedge fund manager absconding with hundreds of millions of dollars, another example of a corporate hierarchy spun out of control. But words still matter. The latest story out of this unstanched pipeline has it that hours after Citigroup received a $45 billion bailout, it was discovered the company had plans to purchase a luxurious $50 million corporate jet. Although the company defended the purchase of the jet as a smart business deal, the response to this development from the Obama administration was swift. According to published reports, administration officials called Citigroup and said: “Fix it.”
For readers who may hear a faint echo from long ago, these words may sound vaguely familiar. These were the words that Richard Scrushy was supposed to have said to Aaron Beam, and that were supposed to be the initial code that caused Beam and Owens to hatch a scheme that eventually led to a $3 billion fraud. Indeed, the entirety of the DOJ’s theory of the HealthSouth fraud was based on those two words.“Fix it.” We could say that this was so long ago it is ancient history. After all, Scrushy’s in prison now. We could say that Scrushy’s use of these words was somehow different, that in the time frame and the context, everything was different. But deep in our hearts, somewhere beneath all of these well formed opinions we have, beneath the moral vindication or justification we have for these feelings, we know that this is not true. “Fix it,” only means “fix it” because words matter.
If one of the corporate officials at Citigroup were to now come up with some sort of fraudulent scheme to hide the $50 million that they were going to use to buy the corporate jet, or perhaps hatch a plot to hide other corporate purchases that the news media has yet to catch wind of, would it then be a plausible ending if one day the DOJ claims that the fraud was caused by the use of these words, and that President Obama is the mastermind?
Words matter. It may be all over now with a man in prison and another man fighting for his career and dignity. But revisit the words of Nick Bailey, of Lanny Young, of Claire Austin, of the HealthSouth tapes, of the DOJ pronouncements, and perhaps subtexts and pretexts that were once so clear and incontrovertible may have somehow changed over time.