WARDELL LAZARD'S achievement had been stunning - to parlay, in 10 years, a dollars 250,000 (pounds 165,000) start-up loan into the biggest black-managed investment house on Wall Street. But he is likely to be remembered less for his career than the manner of his death.
The naked body of the 44-year-old banker was found in a hotel room in Pittsburgh on Wednesday afternoon. Nearby was a half-empty vodka bottle and a cocaine-like powder. Foul play or suicide have been ruled out. Almost certainly, police say, Lazard died from an accidental overdose. But the shock waves are reverberating through the financial and black communities.
For the latter, there is a special dismay. Lazard had been a role model - a black man who achieved respect and success in one of the ultimate white citadels. In 1984, he borrowed dollars 250,000 from his previous employer, Salomon Brothers, to launch W R Lazard and Co. It was was nearly destroyed by the 1987 crash, but almost single-handedly Lazard hauled it back to health.
When he died, W R Lazard was managing dollars 3bn of funds. Its chairman was a zealous supporter of black causes, fighting for more minority hirings on Wall Street, and backing black politicians such as David Dinkins and Marion Barry, the former mayors of New York and Washington DC. In return, they helped channel lucrative municipal bond business his way.
On Thursday, the Manhattan District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, confirmed that W R Lazard, along with other investment banks, is under investigation for possible phoney commissions charged in business with a New York state agency. Lazard himself was not a target, and was reportedly in high spirits when he arrived in Pittsburgh. But the US financial press was speculating yesterday whether the firm could survive the loss of its founder.
Even more troubling perhaps are the wider implications about drugs and Wall Street. The assumption had been that rampant use was a thing of the 1980s 'age of greed'. But the lurid death of Lazard - never associated with a drug habit - suggests otherwise.
According to Robert Strang, who worked undercover on Wall Street for the Drug Enforcement Administration before setting up his own investigative firm, the problem is 'as bad, if not worse', than 10 years ago. The reasons range from resurgent pay levels, stress and greater availability of quality drugs.
A top financial analyst who told the New York Times how he had lost his job because of addiction, says his confession provoked 'literally hundreds' of calls from colleagues facing a similar crisis. But only 4 per cent of financial businesses carry out random drug testing, fewer than in any other industry. As long as staff bring in business and profits, say specialists like Mr Strang, questions are never asked.
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