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Probe has Carl C. Icahn in an uncomfortable spotlight

Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

NEW YORK — For decades, Carl C. Icahn has enjoyed the spotlight.

By rattling corporate boards, mounting takeover efforts, and loudly jostling for change at companies, he has built a multibillion-dollar fortune, inspiring fear among chief executives and admiration among his fellow investors in the process.

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Now as Icahn, 78, enters the final act of his storied career, the spotlight has become uncomfortable.

The revelation that Icahn has become a focus of an insider-trading investigation into trades made by golfer Phil Mickelson and a prominent Las Vegas gambler threatens to leave a mark on a record that Icahn has called “unblemished” and his rivals have called enviable.

The investor has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Icahn has denied giving out any inside information and said he never met or spoke to Mickelson.

Yet the inquiry complicates Icahn’s attempt to mold his legacy as an investing elder statesman rather than being remembered as the corporate raider of the 1980s.

With an investigation hovering in the background, Icahn may choose to retreat from the limelight, at least temporarily, or remain slightly more muted.

In recent years, Icahn has found a soapbox to air his views on business television networks, peppering company-directed barbs with statements about shareholder democracy. He has also taken to social media like Twitter and Facebook to promote his activist campaigns, and he regularly publishes his views on a new website called Shareholders’ Square Table.

Icahn has called on corporate boards to open their coffers and share the wealth, and he has urged companies like Apple to borrow money to do share buybacks and pay greater dividends.

“I am sort of obsessed with corporate governance,” Icahn said in a recent interview in his office on the 47th floor of the General Motors building in Manhattan. “It’s where I can make a meaningful change in this country.”

He has railed against the coziness of corporate boards, which he likens to college fraternities.

Icahn, of course, is no stranger to controversy. He has publicly squared off against America’s biggest companies, recently including Apple, eBay, Yahoo, and Motorola. He has made enemies through headline-grabbing hostile bids for companies like United States Steel, Phillips Petroleum, Texaco, and Trans World Airlines.

More often than not, he has profited wildly from these campaigns.

It was with one of his more recent bids — a hostile takeover attempt of Clorox in 2011 that ultimately failed — that Icahn attracted the attention of investigators. The FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission are looking into whether Icahn played any role in a series of well-timed bets made on Clorox by Mickelson and by William T. Walters, a golf course owner and high-rolling gambler.

Icahn, Mickelson, and Walters have not been accused of any wrongdoing. And even if Icahn did leak information about his bid, he may have done so legally.

Although his peers within the hedge fund industry are divided about his legacy, most aspire to the returns his firm has posted over the years.

Before he closed his hedge fund, Icahn Partners, to outside investors in 2011, it had an annualized return of 27 percent. Shares of his publicly traded company, Icahn Enterprises, have risen 32 percent over the past year.

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