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Top five business villains of the 2000s

Join me at 11 a.m. today for a live online chat about my picks for the U.S. business heroes and villains of this decade.

You can submit a question to the chat, weigh in with your picks in our discussion group, and vote in the poll below.

Friday night, I put up the heroes list. Today, I'm going to preview the chat with my villains list.

Unlike the heroes list, on which I included five more who could be argued either way, this villains list is pretty much a slam-dunk. These were five guys who destroyed their companies, cost their shareholders' millions -- pensions, retirements, life savings, you name it -- shamed their families and on and on. There was a raft of them in the early years of this century, but the decade saved the worst 'til last (Note to parents: if you want your son to go into business but don't want him go to jail, don't name him "Bernie.")

Here we go:

1. Bernie Madoff: It almost doesn't matter if it was $20 billion or $50 billion or $60 billion that Madoff stole from his investors. It was his 20-year lie, his laughing disregard for the SEC and his pure sociopathic makeup that gives him the No. 1 spot. In another bizarre twist to the case, he didn't wait for a trial and conviction; he blithely admitted he carried out the Ponzi scheme. He is currently serving a 150-year sentence in a North Carolina prison.

2. Joseph Cassano, head of AIG's financial products division: One part of AIG was a respectable insurance giant. The other part was a rogue hedge fund within the company that ran on its own autonomy. That was Cassano and his creation, AIG financial products, which sold more derivatives than the insurance business could back. Largely thanks to him, the U.S. taxpayer is on the hook for at least $70 billion.

3. Bernie Ebbers, WorldCom: Ebbers started his business life by owning a chain of motels in Mississippi. He ended it by falsifying the telecom giant's financial statements, costing shareholders $11 billion. Convicted of fraud in 2005, Ebbers is serving a 25-year prison term in a Louisiana prison. Up until Madoff, this was the biggest investor bilking of the decade.

4. Ken Lay, Enron: Some people would put Jeff Skilling here, others would nominate Jeff Fastow. Not me. I covered the trial of Skilling and Lay and watched these cats on the stand. Lay couldn't believe the impertinence of a federal prosecutor questioning him -- Lay, such a big-wig, President Bush called him "Kenny Boy" -- about how he ran Enron. Smoking gun: He encouraged Enron employees to buy Enron stock while he was secretly dumping his. He died shortly after he was sentenced to prison.

5. Dennis Kozlowski, Tyco: In a weird sort of way, you kind of have to admire his tycoon-sized personal indulgence, gluttony and corruption. In the best tradition of 19th-century robber-barons, Koslowski treated his company like a personal ATM. I mean, if you're breaking bad, break all the way bad. Kozlowski did, with his famous $6,000 shower curtain and the Roman toga party he threw for his wife's birthday. (Cost to Tyco shareholders: $1 million.)

The list of 2000s business villains is long. Not even making the Top 5 were John Rigas, in jail for the fraud he perpetuated as head of Adelphia Communications; Dick Fuld, who ran up billions in losses while heading Lehman Brothers, leading to another government bailout; Martin Grass, in jail for falsely inflating the value of his Rite Aid pharmacy chain; Angelo Mozilo, head of Countrywide Financial, the biggest sub-prime lender, and the defendant in a suit filed by the state of New Jersey; and even Skilling who, during his testimony, sounded very much like a man who may have made bad business decisions, but did nothing illegal.

Which ones did I miss? Let's hear from you.

-- Frank Ahrens
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By Frank Ahrens  |  December 14, 2009; 7:21 AM ET
Categories:  The Ticker  | Tags: Andrew Fastow, Bernie Ebbers, Bernie Madoff, Dick Fuld, Jeffrey Skilling, John Rigas, Joseph Cassano, Ken Lay, Kenneth Lay, Lehman Brothers, Martin Grass, Rite Aid  
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