Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The American dream, the mystery of sin, the fascination of proximate notoriety, and Sanjay Kumar

If I were to try to come up with a way to foul up my children's lives, I don't think I could beat this: go to prison for a decade during their young adult years, just when they need a father's steadying hand the most. And yes, he'll probably be out in a couple dozen months, like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky were. But still...

I knew Sanjay Kumar briefly, slightly, a long time ago. I don't think he'd recognize me--there's no reason for him to--without a lengthy, memory-jogging introduction, not even if he were to click on my photo, up there. I only remembered him when I walked past the magazine rack and saw his name on the cover of Business Week, a few years ago. A quick skim through the article confirmed that it was indeed the same man I remembered. A few months ago, out of idle curiosity, I looked him up again and saw that he was taking the fall for one of the biggest accounting frauds in U.S. corporate history, and had been sentenced to ten years in prison. At present, reports say, he's selling off his portfolio, yacht, Ferraris and whatnot to satisfy an investors' settlement. Then, at the end of summer, off to Club Fed.

Having wasted more of my modest potential in my life than I care to reflect on, I really hate to see this befall him. Sanjay Kumar is an American success story straight out of Central Casting. Born in a village in Sri Lanka, a war refugee immigrant to America at 14, a talented computer mind who dropped out of a prestigious college to start his own business, and...well, and he just rode that skyrocket right to the top. What a country!

Surfing around the business blogs, I've seen some people who got a rough ride from him, or who were smacked around in the blowback of his accounting fraud, crowing over his fall. But none of them have said he lacked for capability and accomplishment. Based on what I've read, he did not lack for personal gifts. Vision, drive, smarts, generosity, he had all those qualities a top CEO should have, and more. He was assured and kind when I knew him, too.

But here tragedy, in the classic sense, intrudes. The crucial quality that was lacking was, apparently, honesty. Cooking the books, good god... "Everybody does it" is a teenager's defense; like the old Amoco commercial says, you expect more from a leader. Why? For god's sake, why? He could have had everything he wound up having--the gale-proof portfolio, the swank conveyances, the estate, the wonderful family, influence, honor, respect--he could have had it all honestly, and just as fast. A willingness to take some less-than-rosy quarterly reports on the chin, and he'd still have been clad in silk forever, and never seen the inside of federal court, or prison. Now his name, the name his parents bequeathed him, is in danger of becoming a by-word for white collar corruption. During the Iran hostage crisis, he used to wear a T-shirt that said "I'm not Iranian". Now, maybe there's a market for H1-C visa holding Indian guest workers to buy shirts that say "I'm not Sanjay Kumar". He's too talented and has done too much good with his charity work to be consigned to the fringes of American business, with Milken and Boesky. But, thanks to this tragic flaw in his character, that's what'll happen.

You may wonder why I should care. This isn't a business blog, and I no longer have any connection with him personally. So far as I know, his crime didn't cost me any money. Well, I'm wondering, too. I found myself feeling appalled at what he'd done to himself, his family, his business and his investors. But I also found myself feeling oddly protective of him, solicitous of his well-being, a most unwarranted and impracticable attitude, and one I'm sure he would rightly reject, beyond the core element of simple sympathy. It's partly a natural reaction of rubber-necking at a car crash, partly being aghast when some disaster involves someone you know. And schadenfreude? No. A thousand times, no. Not me. Projection? What would I have done in his place? I don't know. If I were suddenly turned into a leopard, would I be fierce or tame? I don't know. You can't know, until you're brought to the time of testing. All we can do is be aware that the tests are out there, and pray God to fit us for them.

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