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Cox says charges loom in stock-options probe

Problem clearly was widespread, SEC chief says

WASHINGTON -- The first civil charges will be coming ``very soon" in the stock-options timing scandal involving dozens of US companies, the nation's top securities regulator said yesterday.

Asked about the investigations after a meeting, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Christopher Cox, told reporters, ``I can only speak to the civil charges for which we are responsible, but I think, very soon."

The SEC, FBI, and federal prosecutors are investigating nearly 60 companies to determine whether they have manipulated the grant dates and exercise prices of stock options to boost the profits attainable by the corporate executives who got them.

``Each day, of course, we learn more," Cox told reporters. ``But for some time now it's been abundantly clear that these were not episodic instances. But rather there were widespread problems, certainly during the 1990s."

Two finance professors who were behind some of the research that has led to the regulatory probes made public a new study on Saturday. It showed that, in the past decade, almost 30 percent of companies manipulated stock-option grants to top executives at some point.

Cox has said that the investor protection agency will offer guidance to corporate America within weeks on how to handle stock options, as part of a broader set of rules aimed at improving the disclosure of executive pay.

Companies targeted in the investigation range from the healthcare services company UnitedHealth Group Inc., which has warned of a possible $286 million profit restatement, to several high-tech concerns in Silicon Valley.

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