Message in the Milken Sentence

JUDGE Kimba Wood surprised a lot of people last week when she threw the book at Michael Milken. The former Drexel Burnham Lambert whiz kid who invented the junk-bond market and rode it to enormous wealth pleaded guilty in April to six felonies involving securities and tax fraud. His lawyers, noting what appears to be Milken's genuine remorse, his millions of dollars in gifts to charity over the years, and his willingness to devote full time to community service, asked for leniency. After a two-week sentencing hearing, however, Judge Wood sentenced the financier to 10 years in prison, to be followed by a long period of community service. It is the stiffest sentence yet in the lengthy federal probe of Wall Street fraud.

To those of us outside the arcane world of the financial markets, Milken's complex misdeeds are hard to follow. Yet many have felt intuitively that Milken - who had his hands on so many levers that affected other people's money, a man who could actually direct the financial winds by which most of us are simply tossed - breached an implicit trust to society and violated even the free-market principles by which he professed to live.

Were Milken's crimes worse than those of Ivan Boesky (three years in prison) or Martin Siegal (two months), who traded insider stock tips for suitcases of cash? Perhaps not. But Milken refused to cooperate with the prosecutors, and his ostentatious income symbolized a culture of high rollers who thought they were above the rules.

Milken's harsh sentence seems in part a judge's expression of a national revulsion that has set in against the arrogance and greed of ``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' culture. But Milken brought it on himself, as he has tearfully acknowledged.

Judge Wood said she wanted to send a message of deterrence to white-collar criminals. It's hard to fault that.

Milken is still a young man, with enormous talent and energy he says he wants to direct into good works. He has time to balance the scales, and to be remembered for something besides the relentless pursuit of money.

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