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The corporations strike back

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For a time, the business page became the front page of newspapers around the country. A series of scandals from Enron to the $107.5 billion bankruptcy of WorldCom - the largest in history - shook Wall Street the way 9/11 had shaken the confidence of the rest of America. On a single day, July 8, 2002, stock values lost $1.4 trillion in value. Investors learned the hard way that some corporate books were cooked to a mush.

The congressional response? The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, often labeled SOX, which aimed to make corporate bosses and their boards face up to their responsibility for keeping honest books - or else. Federal sentencing guidelines were later revised, toughening penalties for white-collar crimes.

Now SOX is making the news again. Some business leaders are pressing for a partial rollback of the law's regulations, saying its corporate financial-reporting requirements are too onerous. Some ethics experts say SOX should be left alone. The battle picks up some momentum this week, when business and government officials meet in Washington, D.C. to discuss the law.

Congress itself isn't likely to revisit SOX. It would be too embarrassing with the continuing parade of corporate misdeeds - such as mutual funds letting favorite customers buy or sell their shares after trading hours and insurance companies, in effect, giving undisclosed kickbacks to agents selling their products.

But there is a drive by major business organizations to soften some SOX regulations overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Three high-profile groups - the US Chamber of Commerce (with 3 million member firms), the Business Roundtable (chief executives of about 160 major American companies are members), and the Financial Services Roundtable (representing CEOs of 100 of the nation's largest banks and other financial firms) - reckon compliance with SOX is too expensive and time-consuming.

"Small companies are particularly hard-hit," says David Chavern, director of the chamber's corporate governance initiative.

In a letter sent to the SEC in April, Mr. Chavern complained about Section 404 of SOX, which deals with a requirement for internal controls over financial auditing. The section "has been implemented in such a manner as to damage the long-term competitiveness of US companies and the US capital markets and to create burdens on these companies and their management well beyond what Congress intended and what is needed to remedy acknowledged abuses," he wrote.

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