The long-running Livent legal drama shows that what passes for Canadian justice among white-collar offenders remains something of a mystery, like a glacier that moves imperceptibly.
You have to wonder what Livent’s former investors are thinking, or what others might be learning, about Canadian justice. First of all, there were four convicted criminals on Livent’s board, which we were the first to note here. That would be a record if it were not for Hollinger’s boardroom, which boasted a grand total of six felons.
Next, they have had to contend with the iceberg that is Canadian justice. Garth Drabinksy and Myron Gottlieb were both charged with fraud in U.S. federal court in 1999. It wasn’t until 2002 that they were charged in Canada. Six years later the trial began, and last March a conviction was handed down. In a much shorter span of time, Martha Stewart, Jeffrey Skilling, Sanjay Kumar, Dennis Kozlowski and Conrad Black, to name a few, were all charged, convicted and put behind bars. Some are still there. Livent’s duo were convicted in March of this year. They will not be sentenced until mid-August, seven years after the Canadian charges were filed. There will be appeals that will keep the crafty pair out of jail for many years. Along with an appointed senate and a system where the prime minister selects judges for the supreme court and all other top courts without any constitutional checks or balances whatever, what passes for Canadian justice as it pertains to the errant white- collar community remains something of a mystery. Nortel’s former CEO has yet to see the inside of a courtroom. The Ontario Securities Commission seems to have forgotten about Hollinger and dropped an appeal in a high profile case it lost. No one was ever convicted in the Bre-X fraud, the largest crime of its kind in mining history. None of this, including the lethargic handling of the current Livent case, is likely to change the image that Canada is soft on white-collar crime.
If that playbook is followed, Livent’s founders will spend a relatively short time in prison. A sentence of between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years would not be surprising given the leniency Canadian judges have shown toward miscreants in the boardroom. These courts have little trouble expressing outrage over a single mother who passes bad cheques. When it comes to rich tycoons or theater impresarios, their disdain appears more muted, almost apologetic, for having to find someone guilty. Livent’s founders will regain some measure of freedom within months of beginning their sentences. Some of Judge Mary Lou Benotto’s decision reads in places like a publicity brochure for one of Livent’s productions and in others could pass for the citation during the awarding of an Order of Canada medal (which Mr. Drabinsky holds).
As to the proposal put forward by Mr. Drabinsky’s lawyer that his sentence include no prison time but rather a speaking tour on the topic of ethics in business: In this fictional portrayal worthy of the stage, Mr. Drabinsky would find himself in the company of an interesting cast. Ken Lay used to give such speeches before his conviction in the Enron case. Bernard Madoff, when he chaired NASDAQ’s board, was seen as a strong advocate of robust industry regulation on Wall Street. Michael Edwards, a former chairman of the Toronto Stock Exchange, was also considered a proponent of ethical and governance reforms, until he was penalized by the Ontario Securities Commission for his failures in the RT Capital (then a division of the Royal Bank of Canada) scandal some years ago. He was also a member of the committee that brought forward the Exchange’s 1994 landmark corporate governance guidelines. It was later discovered that he chaired a board at RT Capital that never actually met. Ethics, it seems, is the last available refuge for the corporate scoundrel.
Having looked at the subject over several decades and given more than my share of speeches and media interviews on it, as well as advice to several governments and major corporations, I have found that it is a good idea for one to know something about the subject of ethics before claiming to extol it. It requires a commitment to ethics as a core value, not as a convenient tool to avoid prison or promote good public relations. Ethics might also entail some knowledge of right and wrong. As far as Mr. Drabinsky is concerned, there has been no demonstration of remorse or appreciation for the wrong he committed and the injury he caused.
Canadian justice has moved at its customary glacial pace since the fraud at Livent was alleged in the Manhattan Office of the U.S. Attorney. Perhaps all investors and advocates of a higher standard of justice in the boardroom and enforcement by Canadian regulators and the courts have left is the hope that by the time the sentence is handed down next month, it will not have melted into a puddle of meaningless platitudes where the offenders pay with empty words instead of a significant measure of their freedom.