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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Thomas A. Russo

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-11

Thomas A. Russo, vice chairman of Lehman Brothers Inc. and the 155-year-old investment bank's chief legal officer, had started this day with a meeting at 7:30 a.m. By the time he came to lunch with the reporter, he'd had three more meetings, and taken several overseas and domestic calls in his additional role as head of Lehman's corporate advisory division with responsibility for legal, compliance, internal audit, government relations, and the documentation group.

There was also some work in connection with Lehman's new products committee and also the operating exposures committee, both of which he chairs. There were a couple of matters related to the Institute of International Education, which administers the State Department's Fulbright Program, and whose executive committee he heads.

And yes, there was the one-hour workout in a gym before his formal workday started.

Were there enough hours in the clock for him, the reporter - whose own deadline-driven schedule had spawned portliness, in contrast to his guest's dapper trimness -- asked Mr. Russo?

"In everything I do, I always ask myself, 'Am I doing the best that I can?'" Mr. Russo said. "If you feel good about what you do, then you can be at peace with yourself."

He's handsomely compensated for what he does. Lehman paid him $3 million last year, making him the highest-paid corporate legal counsel in America after General Electric's chief lawyer, Benjamin Heineman Jr., who drew $4.3 million, according to a survey by Corporate Legal Times.

Mr. Russo certainly earns his salary and bonuses, especially these days when Wall Street is under increased scrutiny by regulatory institutions on account of assorted scandals concerning corporate behavior. As Lehman's chief legal officer, it's Mr. Russo's responsibility to ensure strict compliance with the law on the part of the firm's 20,300 employees, particularly the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act on accounting and governance.

Indeed, Mr. Russo was a key player in bringing about the record $1.4 billion settlement by 10 Wall Street companies in April 2003. Lehman, which paid $80 million in fines - Citigroup paid $400 million - was among those accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, of conflicts of interest while aiming to increase their investment-banking business.

"The whole episode was bad for the industry, it was bad for business," Mr. Russo said. "It could be cited as an example of us being our own worst enemy. While some have accused regulators for being excessively zealous, for the most part the industry brought this upon itself."

What about the continuing tensions and torque of his work, the reporter asked, how does he go about ensuring compliance with the law in such a large organization as Lehman?

"The only way is regain investors' trust is to create a culture of doing the right thing," Mr. Russo said. I always say to my colleagues, 'If it feels wrong, just don't do it.' You cannot compromise your integrity. Everyone in the financial-services always needs to keep in mind that, first and foremost, customers must be served to the best of our ability. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing the right thing."

Mr. Russo's emphasis on "doing the right thing," and his probity, has acquired an almost mythic dimension in the financial-services industry. Some 84 million Americans have invested more than $14 trillion in the equities markets in the United States; more than 3.2 billion shares are typically traded on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq every day.

That emphasis on morality is transmitted by Mr. Russo not only to his associates at Lehman (which he joined in January 1993). It's a message that he conveys to hundreds of other professionals, students, and young people with whom he comes into contact each year through institutions such as the IIE, the Economic Club of New York, the Foreign Policy Association, the Fellows of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and U.S. Council for International Business.

He's not a proselytizer, nor is his style preachy. The soft-spoken Mr. Russo learned the art of subtlety from his late father, Lucio, a Staten Island lawyer who was also a member of the state Assembly for 22 years. He also learned forthrightness and resourcefulness from his late mother, Tina, who encouraged him to get summer jobs on the floor of the American Stock Exchange; it was his mother who elicited his continuing involvement with the March of Dimes, where he's vice chairman. (His parents died in a car accident last year.)

"I figured out early in life that success is a matter of focus and energy," Mr. Russo said. "If you find something that you like to do, then you've got to do it with all your passion."

It's an attitude that helped him ace undergraduate studies at Fordham University, and Cornell University, where he earned a MBA as well as a law degree. Mr. Russo was also elected to the honor societies, Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi. It's an attitude that helped him distinguish himself as a young lawyer at the S.E.C., which he joined after Cornell.

It's an attitude that helped him become partner and member of the management committee of the prestigious law firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. And it's an attitude that most certainly helped land him the job of the first director of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission's Division of Trading and Markets. (Mr. Russo is also the author of two books on federal securities and commodities laws, and frequently writes for trade and mainstream publications on commodities, securities, banking, and financial market regulation.)

His career has fetched him numerous honors, naturally. The National Law Journal listed him as one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America." Not long ago, Mr. Russo was an inaugural inductee into the Futures Industry Association Hall of Fame. These honors are to be savored, of course, but Mr. Russo isn't one to brag about them. In his lunch conversation, in fact, he credited his colleagues and parents, and averred: "I've been enormously lucky in my life."

There's one aspect of his luck that Mr. Russo chooses to highlight - his wife, Marcy, who helps run a Jewish educational foundation; and his children: twin daughters Alexa and Morgan, 15, and son Tyler, 9.

The reporter obtained a sense of how much Mr. Russo's family shares his dedication to education and cultural bridge-building - which he said were essential not only for sustaining America's economic might but also for engendering enhanced awareness overseas of the homespun values of tolerance, friendship, and hospitality that serve as underpinnings of American society.

It happened on the evening after the lunch with Mr. Russo. He'd invited several young Fulbright scholars from Iraq, India, China, Syria, and other countries to his Fifth Avenue apartment for a reception. The view of Central Park was stunning; the food was scrumptious. But the highlight of the evening was clearly violin renditions of Bach by Alexa and Morgan, accompanied on the piano by their fellow student from the Dalton School, Gennifer Tsoi.

They often give such performances, Mr. Russo said; they visit senior citizens' homes, and hospices, to give comfort and spread good will through their music. The reporter thought: Like father, like daughters.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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