- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Former Rite Aid Corp. head Martin L. Grass was sentenced to eight years in prison yesterday for conspiring to falsely inflate the value of the company his father founded more than four decades ago and cover up the scheme.

Grass, 50, who headed the nation’s third-largest pharmacy chain in the late 1990s before being forced out in October 1999, also was fined $500,000 and given three years’ probation for his role in a billion-dollar accounting fraud that sent the company’s stock tumbling.

Six former Rite-Aid executives were convicted or pleaded guilty in the scandal, in which the company inflated its earnings.

Before U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo handed down the sentence, Grass apologized to Rite Aid, its stockholders and employees.

“For the harm caused to them, I am truly sorry,” he said.

On the eve of a trial that was to start in June 2003, Grass pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud Rite Aid and its shareholders and conspiracy to obstruct justice in a deal that required him to cooperate with prosecutors.

After Judge Rambo rejected a plea deal that called for up to eight years in prison, he reached a new deal that capped his potential sentence at 10 years in prison. His sentence yesterday reflected credit for help he provided to the government.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Douglas Daniel described to the judge Grass’ crimes: The company made millions from improper vendor charges and recorded income improperly; $2.8 million in company funds were used for a land deal that benefited Grass personally; and after he left the company, Grass issued seven backdated severance letters to fellow executives worth a combined $23 million.

In the process, Mr. Daniel said, Grass “deceived and misled thousands of individual and institutional investors and creditors.”

The “grand conspiracy to obstruct justice” that Grass helped orchestrate was designed to fool the company, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the FBI and the grand jury, Mr. Daniel said.

During Grass’ time at the head of the Camp Hill, Pa., company founded by his father, Alex Grass, in 1962, its stock price soared as Rite Aid engaged in an aggressive expansion effort.

But the grand jury said the boom years were accomplished by “massive accounting fraud, the deliberate falsification of financial statements, and intentionally false SEC filings.”

Less than a year after Grass left the company, the new management team restated the company’s net earnings for 1998 and 1999, reducing them by $1.6 billion. Rite Aid recently recorded its first profits since the Grass years.

“As it turns out, I tried to do too much, too fast,” Grass told the judge yesterday.

When the company’s finances took a turn for the worse in early 1999, he said, “I did some things to try and hide that fact.”

“Those things were wrong. They were illegal,” he said. “I did not do them to line my own pockets.”

Judge Rambo recommended him for a federal prison camp and said he must turn himself in June 28. Grass and his lawyers declined to comment as they left the courthouse.

The eight-year sentence is considerably longer than those imposed on three other former Rite Aid executives sentenced this week on conspiracy charges.

Former financial chief Franklyn M. Bergonzi was sentenced to 28 months in prison; Eric S. Sorkin, a former vice president, received five months in jail and five months house arrest; and another former vice president, Philip Markovitz, will serve a month in jail and five months house arrest.

The man who briefly succeeded Grass as interim CEO, Timothy Noonan, is scheduled to be sentenced June 8 for one count of withholding information from company investigators.

Franklin C. Brown, former Rite Aid vice chairman and chief counsel, was the only defendant to go to trial, He was found guilty of 10 criminal counts by a jury in October. No sentencing date has been set.

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