What’s In a Name?
I check surnames. It’s a reflex, and I can’t help it. If you’re like most Jews I know, you do it too. You can’t help but wonder, for instance, if some of the people at the center of the latest financial scandals are Jewish or not. We kvell at Shawn Green and cringe at Andrew Fastow, although it’s hard to figure just what being born Jewish had to do with Green’s batting average or Fastow’s alleged misdeeds.
But still, I check.
Andrew Fastow, former CFO at Enron? Hmm. Fastow. Yes, Jewish.
L. Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco? Hmm, could be but — no.
Mark Belnick, the ousted general counsel of Tyco? Maybe … have to check.
Then there is Gary Winnick, founder and chairman of bankrupt telecommunications group Global Crossing, who testified this week before Rep. L. Billy Tauzin’s (R-La.) House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee wanted to know whether Winnick knew his company was in financial trouble and failed to alert investors while selling millions of dollars worth of his own stock in the meantime. According to The Financial Times, Winnick grossed $512 million since 1999, a period in which Global Crossing has lost $9.2 billion and eliminated 5,020 jobs.
Winnick has been charged with no crime and has denied any wrongdoing. “Global Crossing’s bankruptcy,” Winnick told the committee, “based on the facts known to me, is a result not of any fraud, but of a catastrophe that befell an entire industry sector.” Winnick’s lawyer says his client’s stock sale was proper and approved by Global’s counsel.
Reading Gary Winnick’s name splashed scross the national papers hits especially close to home. Three years ago to the day that I write this, the cover of The Journal featured a photograph of Winnick and this headline: “Gary Winnick Steps Out Front: ‘The Wealthiest Man in Los Angeles’ is driven to succeed and to give to the Jewish community.” In it, Tom Tugend reported that Winnick’s fortune of $6.2 billion made him Los Angeles’ richest citizen, according to The Los Angeles Business Journal. The story documented Winnick’s rise as the grandson of a one-time pushcart peddler on New York’s Lower East Side to financial whiz at the side of Michael Milken to visionary leader in the telecommunications industry.
More pointedly, it reported on the billionaire’s seemingly inexhaustible charity: a $5 million-pledge by the Gary and Karen Winnick Family Foundation to erect exhibit galleries at the Skirball Cultural Center, Hillel center endowments at three East Coast universities and a children’s zoo at the Los Angeles Zoo. His pledges and donations to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Birthright Israel, Chabad and at least 54 other groups totaled $100 million over the past three years. The Foundation’s largest single donation is the $40 million pledged to the Simon Wiesenthal Center for construction of the Winnick Institute in Jerusalem, to be designed by Frank Gehry.
All this largesse, the lion’s share of it directed toward the Jewish community, set an example for others of similar wealth to follow.
Now, of course, in the court of public opinion, Winnick is being held up as an exemplar not of philanthropy, but of 1990s greed. Though he’s worth considerably less than $6.2 billion these days, he still built a home worth an estimated $60 million to $90 million, and he may never provide satisfactory enough answers for the people whose financial worth evaporated along with Global Crossing’s.
I’m assuming this is a source of anguish to Winnick, whom I don’t know and have never met. He must know that, in light of Global Crossing’s reverses, a good many people will forever see his philanthropy, his words of contrition, his offers of recompense, as utilitarian ploys to win favor, to buy back his good name.
He is now in a place where others, including some from this community, have traveled before. How does one emerge from such a fall? The answer, surprisingly, may come from Winnick himself.
Speaking three years ago of the criteria by which he chooses philanthropies, Winnic told The Journal: “I must believe in the cause, and I demand accountability from the recipient.”
Accountability. The lack of it is what lay at the heart of the numerous financial scandals that have rocked the stock market and shaken investor confidence. It is at the heart of the endless post-boom congressional hearings at which former CEOs put on their best Easter Island faces and can rarely, if ever, account for what was taking place in the companies they headed.
There are signs that Winnick does expect accountability of himself. Heads of charitable organizations to which Winnick pledged contributions, contacted this past February by The Journal, said they were in receipt of the monies or fully expected the pledges to arrive. His offer to replenish depleted employee retirement funds by $25 million was unprecedented in the current climate of CEO duck-and-run. Having set an example with his giving, Winnick can now set one with his candor.
This would be a good thing, because employees and stockholders are not, according to Jewish tradition, the only stakeholders in our business behavior. God also calls us to account for our actions. When we die, the Talmud says, the first question God will ask each one of us is, “Nasata v’netata be’emunah” — “Did you conduct your business affairs with honesty?”
In an article on Jewish law, Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz elaborates: “Business ethics is the arena where the ethereal transcendent teachings of holiness and spirituality confront the often grubby business of making money and being engaged in the rat race …. It is the acid test of whether religion is truly relevant or religion is simply relegated to an isolated sphere of human activity.”
Justly or unjustly, Gary Winnick is undergoing that acid test quite publicly.