Wall Street: A Greed Apart

You've already heard a lot about these Wall Street weasels. There was "The Predators' Ball," the 1988 book on Michael Milkenomics and the junk-bond empire at Drexel Burnham. There was "Barbarians at the Gate," the 1990 page turner about the RJR Nabisco takeover. There have been scores of magazine covers and newspaper spreads moralizing over the Greed Decade. There even was the movie called "Wall Street," with a reptilian lead named Gordon Gekko who made money the new-fashioned way-he stole it.

Do we really need another account of these little piggies who went to market-and pillaged it? James B. Stewart's Don of Thieves (493 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25) suggests we might. Here is the definitive narrative of the men who rigged Wall Street in the '80s, and the federal prosecutors who brought them to putative justice. Written as high drama, "Den of Thieves" is the interlocking stories of Dennis Levine, Martin Siegel, Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken--the four miscreants whose insider-trading ring made millions and shattered any pretense of market integrity. In bug-on-the-wall detail, Stewart describes:

Milken fighting the head of Drexel over a bonus of $15,000, even though the rest of his take that year totaled $550 million in official compensation and a billion more in booty from other deals;

Boesky sending a shadowy courier to leave $700,000 for Siegel in a series of drops at Manhattan phone booths and hotel lobbies;

Levine, armed with a purloined floor plan, slithering into Lazard Freres to steal confidential takeover documents-and admire an executive's expensive Cuban cigars;

The fortuitous way in which a brokerage house first gets on the trail of the criminals--by receiving an anonymous tip in the mail about some low-level Merrill Lynch employees with no apparent connection to the big tunas in the scandal;

The infighting between U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani and the Securities and Exchange Commission, culminating in Giuliani's threat to support Milken and Drexel if the SEC filed suit;

The Feds tricking Siegel into panic and cooperation by placing an anonymous call from a "Bill," warning that he knew of Siegel's connection with "the Russian" (meaning Boesky).

Stewart says these are all scoops, still fresh despite the voluminous reporting he and others have done on the insider-trading scandal. And it's certainly the first time one reporter has laid out the scandal in such detail. What's most compelling, though, is the overpowering case the book marshals against Milken. Levine comes across as an oaf, Boesky a loon, Siegel a neurotic. But Milken emerges as the embodiment of evil. This is not the Milken that his high-priced defender,% have been serving up ever since he came under investigation, the financing genius who took on the moneyed establishment. This is not the Milken, who despite admitting in 1990 to six felonies and getting 10 years in the pokey, many still believe was a scapegoat forced to plead guilty to some arcane technicalities. (Alan Dershowitz, one of Milken's lawyers, has mounted a campaign to discredit "Den of Thieves" as "a vicious anti-Semitic diatribe"--in part because the four "thieves" are Jewish. Stewart calls the charge "totally spurious," and he's right; there's no evidence of bias in the book.)

The Milken of "Den of Thieves" is the Mr. Big who man d to make even Boesky, the prince of arbitrage, a pawn. Boesky made a fortune in trading profits, much of it on illegal tips from Levine and Siegel; but it was Milken who barked orders to Boesky and used Boesky's company to cover his own tracks. This Milken clearly made use of inside information, even if he continues to deny it today. As Stewart tells it, Milken's Beverly Hills operation was a model of corruption, seeking not just wealth but control of the American economy.

If Stewart's book has a weakness, it's that it reads in places like a 150,000-word story on The Wall Street Journal's front page (which Stewart now edits). How many dirty deals must one read about to get the point? Stewart is a gifted chronicler, a master of minutiae. But his writing can be predictable: every Connecticut suburb is "exclusive," every prosecutor a selfless public servant living hand to mouth. The larger problem is that Stewart doesn't go the next step after description-judgment, analysis, context. He's too often content with the Dragnet method of writing history: just the facts, ma'am. In particular, Milken, for all his megalomania, remains an enigma. Who is this guy? Too many authors engage in commentary that is neither smart nor original. Stewart is too talented to have those concerns. Yet his view of the universe he catalogs is confined to a five-page epilogue, concluding that scandal will inexorably return in one guise or another. A depressing and no doubt accurate prediction. But what of the Reagan administration's laissez-faire attitude toward business? Do we need new penalties to make financial felons think twice about the ratio of risk to reward? Why is it that so many prominent businessmen still want to believe in Milken's goodness? Given the environment that seemed to exist on Wall Street, should more misdeeds have been discovered? "Den of Thieves" is the best book so far on the Whoring Eighties. Even though it already weighs in at nearly 500 pages, it would have been nice to have a little more.