Simply Following Company Policy?

America's business ethics are getting the closest examination in years, as former big chiefs in the corporate suites of power defend their actions on the job, in three separate criminal trials.

Jury selection moved forward Tuesday in the New York courtroom where former Tyco executives face grand larceny charges, while in another New York City courtroom, and in Harrisburg, testimony began in two cases involving charges of criminal mishandling of business documents.

In Harrisburg, where former Rite Aid chief counsel Franklin Brown is accused of falsely inflating the value of the company, a secretary testified that he gave her $25,000 to buy a new car after she helped create backdated documents qualifying him and other executives for thousands of shares of company stock

On cross-examination, however, legal secretary Mary Lou Egan said that she didn't think the cash for the convertible she bought was a payoff. "I did not have (the) feeling that the car was in exchange for anything I did," said Egan.

Documents are also the focus in New York, at the trial of former Credit Suisse First Boston investment banker Frank Quattrone, whose obstruction of justice trial is being called the most closely watched financial case since that of 1980s junk bond king Michael Milken.

In his opening statement, federal prosecutor Steven Peikin accused Quattrone of having deliberately used his power and influence to stand in the way of a government investigation by ordering employees to destroy documents.

Quattrone's lawyer, John Keker, painted a different picture, arguing that the investment banker was a responsible, diligent worker who was simply following a company policy that required staffers to get rid of old documents.

"Frank Quattrone, when it comes to evidence and subpoenas, does what he is told," said Keker, in his opening statement.

Peikin told jurors in federal court in Manhattan that Quattrone tried to block the federal probe in 2000 because he worried it would interfere with his livelihood.

"He chose to put the full weight of his power and position behind this document destruction effort," said Peikin.

Quattrone made tens of millions of dollars a year at Credit Suisse First Boston during the 1990s, helping take technology companies public during the dot-com boom.

He is accused of encouraging CSFB employees to get rid of documents that were being sought by a grand jury and regulators looking into how CSFB doled out shares of initial public offerings.

Peikin, making the government's opening argument, displayed a blown-up image of an e-mail sent by Quattrone on Dec. 5, 2000, that is at the center of the government's case.

In the e-mail, Quattrone attached a note written by another CSFB employee that urged workers to clean out their files for the holidays. Quattrone attached his own note "strongly" encouraging the cleaning.

The government contends Quattrone knew that federal investigators, even a federal grand jury, were looking into CSFB and that the company's own policy told workers to keep all documents in the event of such an investigation.

"But Mr. Quattrone chose another path - a path that violated the law," said Peikin.

The e-mail is just one of more than 200 that Quattrone sent and received on Dec. 5, his lawyer said, attempting to show that Quattrone was a responsible worker handling dozens of different subjects that day.

The federal probe into how CSFB issued IPO shares was closed in 2001 with no charges filed.

A jury of six men and six women is hearing the case. One of them is Kenneth Guentner, who identified himself during jury screening as an officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and who said his wife is also a Fed banker.

The charges against Quattrone carry penalties of up to 25 years in prison, but he would likely get a far lighter sentence under federal guidelines if convicted.

U.S. District Judge Richard Owen, who a day earlier had asked jurors whether they could be fair in light of the recent torrent of scandalous news about corporate executives, on Tuesday asked jurors to keep open minds.

"Treat it as if it was leaves falling in the backyard," Owen told jurors. "Don't necessarily decide the case based on this leaf or that leaf. Wait till they've all fallen, then pick up the pile and assess the pile."

Also in New York Tuesday, in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, jury selection continued in the trial of former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski and former chief financial officer Mark Swartz, who are accused of looting the company of $600 million.

Lawyers have selected a pool of about 120 prospective jurors from the 365 screened in the past two days.

Justice Michael Obus said he would continue prescreening in chambers with lawyers and defendants present, rather than in open court.

Following this announcement, a reporter asked the judge why he was questioning jurors in chambers. The judge replied that the questioning was minimal and that formal jury selection would take place in open court.

Lawyers said they thought the formal selection would begin Thursday.

After lunch, the judge explained further that the prescreening questions had to do with what people know about the case. He said he wants that done in private, "not in the earshot of potential jurors" waiting in the courtroom.

The judge also said the proceeding was "not a secret," an apparent reference to the court reporter transcribing the sessions.