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Humor column: The commode’s the thing

By Daryl Lease
The Virginian-Pilot
I’ve stumbled upon an early warning system for economic turmoil, corporate profligacy and political corruption.
It involves commodes, trash cans and, occasionally, umbrella stands shaped like poodles.
Let us begin with John Thain, who was among more than 75,000 Americans who lost their jobs in recent days. Unlike the others, it appears he had it coming. Thain was given the heave-ho by Bank of America just weeks after completing its acquisition of Merrill Lynch & Co., where he’d served as CEO.
His new colleagues at Bank of America weren’t happy to learn that Merrill lost $15.3 billion in the final quarter of 2008. They were also displeased that Merrill had accelerated the payment of several billion dollars’ worth of bonuses to its executives prior to the sale. N.Y. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating the matter.
Thain contends he was “completely transparent” about the losses and says the Bank of America folks knew about the bonuses.
This is delightfully sordid, the sort of stuff that petty, class-warfare fellows like me revel in. Call me gauche, but ó in times like these ó it’s heartening to hear tales of corporate pillagers and plunderers getting their comeuppance, particularly after taxpayers were forced to come up with money to bail them out of their wretched excess.
But the aspect of this story that caused my unibrow to arch and my big ears to perk up was the $1.2 million that Thain spent last year renovating his office at Merrill Lynch. According to CNBC, the expenses included $87,784 for a rug, $68,179 for an antique credenza and $25,713 for a mahogany table.
Two items caught my attention: $1,405 for a parchment waste can and $35,115 for what was described as “a commode on legs.”
Hmm, I muttered to myself. Where have I seen this before?
I flipped through my private collection of “Horatio Alger on a Bender” stories and there it was: Duke Cunningham, the imprisoned former congressman from California now on a riches-to-rehab journey, had once accepted a commode, valued at $7,000, as a bribe.
This was no ordinary toilet. Duke’s commode was a fancy chest of drawers, from France, dating back to the 1850s. The name derives from the fact that some of these pieces had compartments for chamber pots.
But wait, I thought: Wasn’t a pricey potty item found in the possession of another perp?
Indeed. It belonged to L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International who was convicted of defrauding shareholders of hundreds of millions of dollars and handing out more than $150 million in unauthorized bonuses.
His expenditures included a $2,200 trash can (gilt metal) and a $15,000 umbrella stand shaped like a poodle.
The potty accessory of interest was a $17,100 Venetian traveling toilette box made of painted leather and gilded bronze. Kozlowski was upset that the media inaccurately described his precious antique as a “portable toilet.”
So far, I’ve seen no detailed description of John Thain’s “commode on legs.” But I’m guessing it’s French, like Duke’s prized bribe. For 35 thousand bucks, it might actually be ambulatory.
We can only speculate about how many other overpriced commodes and trash cans are out there.
Before lawmakers distribute another penny of tax money to troubled companies, I suggest they delicately inquire about what type of waste cans the CEOs use. We have a right, after all, to know where our crumpled dollar bills land.
– – –
Lease is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot.

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