NEW YORK — Stanley Sporkin, a legal crusader who, as the chief enforcement officer at the Securities and Exchange Commission, held American corporations accountable for making illicit campaign contributions in the United States and for bribing public officials abroad, died Monday in Rockville, Md. He was 88.
His death, from congestive heart failure in a hospice, was confirmed by his son Daniel.
In the 1970s, at a newly vitalized SEC, Mr. Sporkin investigated illegal corporate slush funds, pressured American companies to comply with the commission’s cease-and-desist orders, and sued the firms if they failed to do so.
He also successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977.
Mr. Sporkin’s investigations led to admissions by leading corporations — including Gulf Oil, Exxon, Mobil Oil, Lockheed Aircraft, R.J. Reynolds Industries, and Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing — that they had made millions of dollars in secret payoffs to scores of politicians.
The disclosures of bribery by American corporations operating abroad caused political scandals in Honduras, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, and other countries.
“We’ve gone through a metamorphosis in the last year, from a handful of disclosures by the Watergate prosecutor’s office to an SEC program involving 17 enforcement actions and 150 companies,” Roderick M. Hills, the SEC chairman, told The New York Times in 1976.
The commission’s reputation as a passive filing repository evolved into something more fearsome, especially when an enforcement arm was added in 1972. The more aggressive strategy was agreed upon collectively but, Mills said, “If you want a symbol, Stan is the proper one.”
Instead of draining the commission’s resources by taking every case to court, Mr. Sporkin sought to reach consent agreements under which a suspect corporation would appoint a special committee of its independent directors to examine allegations of irregularities and present its findings to the firm’s full board for resolution.
“The special committee procedure proved to be the key to the SEC’s program on questionable payments,” Joel Seligman wrote in his book “The Transformation of Wall Street” (1982).
Described as a cross between two fictional detectives — Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, the brilliant, burly armchair investigator, and Columbo, the rumpled, relentless police sleuth portrayed by Peter Falk on television — Mr. Sporkin played two other major public policy roles in real life.
From 1981 through 1985, during the Reagan administration, he was general counsel to the Central Intelligence Agency. From the end of 1985 until he retired in 2000, he served on the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
As a judge, he delivered a blistering opinion in 1990 that upheld the federal seizure of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association; accused Charles H. Keating Jr. and his associates of looting that institution; and reprimanded the lawyers and accountants involved in the association’s failure as complicit.
He also wrote the opinion for a three-judge panel in 1993 that dismissed the cable television industry’s First Amendment challenge to federal rules requiring cable companies to carry broadcast stations’ programming.
In 1995, after inviting competitors to submit their objections anonymously to protect them from retaliation, he overturned as insufficient a consent decree under which Microsoft agreed to alter licensing practices that the government said were monopolistic. His decision was reversed.
After retiring as a judge, Mr. Sporkin joined the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
Mr. Sporkin was highly regarded at the SEC, where he was considered a loyal, mentoring boss. But he was the scourge of corporate lawyers who defended their clients before the commission, and sometimes even in court.
“The SEC has succeeded in intimidating the attorneys who appear before it, with the result that zealous advocacy has been sharply curtailed in securities matters,” Monroe H. Freedman, the former dean of the Hofstra University Law School, wrote in “Lawyers’ Ethics in an Adversary System” (1975).
Mr. Sporkin never wavered in his view that, as he put it, “capitalism is the greatest thing going, but unchecked, it’s its own undoing.” He argued that the SEC’s vigorous check on the system was an example of government that works.
Stanley Sporkin was born Feb. 7, 1932, in Philadelphia, one of four children of Maurice and Ethel (Weiner) Sporkin.
He said he was drawn to the law early, inspired by visits as a child to City Hall, where his father, a former assistant district attorney, presided as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas.
He married Judy Imber, an artist, whom he leave. In addition to her and their son Daniel, he leaves their daughter, Elizabeth Sporkin; another son, Thomas; his sister, Barbara Meyers; and five grandchildren.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Pennsylvania State University in 1953, Mr. Sporkin worked as an accountant until he could afford Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 1957. His first job was with a law firm.