Let's talk about CEOs and prison -- and what it takes to be a chief executive who gets arrested in this country. 

Yesterday, an ex-CEO who once had a $1.5 million salary found out. He was in handcuffs, courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, along with another former executive from his company.

The things that former Rochester Drug Co-Operative head Laurence Doud III, 75, is accused of doing, along with ex-chief compliance officer William Pietruszewski, won't garner much sympathy. 

"Drug trafficking," as the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan summarized: Their company allegedly distributed "large quantities of oxycodone, fentanyl" and other opioids to pharmacies even after they figured out the pharmacies were giving drugs to people with no legitimate medical need.

The charges come with a possible life sentence, by the way. And while this is an unusual case (thankfully), the arrests come as we're having a renewed national debate about when company leaders should face criminal charges. 

Case in point: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, who wants to "expan[d] criminal liability to any corporate executive who negligently oversees a giant company causing severe harm to U.S. families."

Of course, it's not exactly unprecedented. Martin Shkreli is reportedly spending his time in solitary confinement at Fort Dix. And readers of a certain age will remember Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron CEO, who was originally sentenced to 24 years in prison -- he got out in February.

At the same time, only one Wall Street executive did time as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. (I'll bet you don't know his name; I didn't before I looked him up today.)

There's a saying in legal circles: "Hard cases make bad law."

Easy cases are just as bad. You take a precedent like what the former leaders of Rochester Drug Co-Operative are accused of doing, and it makes the next lesser case, and the next one, and the next one, seem easier.

I can't tell you where the line should be. I don't know when executives should face criminal charges for things they do in the name of their business. 

But I can tell you one thing. If I were a CEO, I'd be watching Doud, Pietrusewski, and Rochester Drug case.

Because it feels like we're at the start of a case that we'll all look back at someday as the start of something more.

Published on: Apr 24, 2019
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