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Like betting on a horse race after its finish, some executives were guaranteed to be “in the money.” That is how investor advocates and irate shareholders describe it as signs emerge daily about possible manipulation of the timing of stock options grants to enrich top company executives. Two of the latest cases appear to involve novel twists that are taking the growing scandal down a new path as the government’s investigations widen. Three dozen companies are under scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission or federal prosecutors. While backdating of options can be legal if properly disclosed to shareholders, SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said last week that companies may have broken the law if there wasn’t proper disclosure or the options weren’t accounted for correctly. “The backdating of stock option grants is akin to picking lottery numbers on the day after the winning numbers are announced,” says a shareholder lawsuit against Caremark Rx Inc., one of the companies being investigated. On Monday, the parent of Internet job search site Monster.com announced that it had received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan regarding its stock options grants and had opened an internal investigation. The news came after The Wall Street Journal published a report that Monster Worldwide Inc. often gave top executives options that were dated at low points in the stock price — just ahead of steep increases. That raised questions of whether the option grants were deliberately timed so that the executives could reap a bigger profit when they eventually sold their shares, with no connection to the executives’ performance. Shares of Monster fell 8 percent, or $3.40, to close at $38.60 Monday on the Nasdaq Stock Market. In the case of Cyberonics Inc., the company reportedly granted options to top executives shortly after it received positive news certain to boost the share price. The Houston-based maker of medical devices disclosed Monday that the SEC had started an informal inquiry into its options granting practices. Cyberonics was off nearly 4 percent to close at $21.79 on the Nasdaq. Most of the cases under investigation appear to have involved backdating options grants to a low point in the company’s stock price — thereby fattening the spread and the payoff for executives when they sell. With the newer scenarios, “The problem is you’re still giving preferential terms to corporate insiders at the expense of the investing public,” said Brandon Rees, assistant director of the investment office of the AFL-CIO labor federation, a major shareholder in public companies. “It’s still problematic.” Intuit Inc., which makes the popular TurboTax and Quicken personal-finance software programs, on Friday became the best known high-tech company to announce an investigation of stock option practices, disclosing an informal SEC inquiry. Also Friday, Apollo Group Inc., which runs the University of Phoenix, said it would hire an outside firm to examine its option granting practices. The country’s biggest public pension fund is pressuring two dozen companies to conduct their own probes. “These allegations raise concerns about a lack of oversight by the board of directors, weak internal controls, weak internal and external audit practices, and poor accounting — as well as the possibility of civil and criminal penalties against these companies,” Christianna Wood, senior investment officer for global equity at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, said in a letter to the companies last week. In related developments Monday:

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