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Astra's Ex Boss: Sex, Lies, And Home Improvements?


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ASTRA'S EX-BOSS: SEX, LIES, AND HOME IMPROVEMENTS?

Ex-Astra USA chief Bildman is charged with bilking $1 million

It was spring of 1994, and Lars Bildman had just bought a $1.8 million mansion in a tony section of Brookline, Mass. But to Bildman's hypercritical eye, his new digs needed a major overhaul, starting with the driveway. It seems the offending roadway traversed the front of the property. So Bildman ordered it moved, a huge undertaking. Bildman, then chief executive of Astra USA Inc., didn't seem fazed by the cost. And with good reason, according to the landscaper, Alan Steiman's Landscape Inc.: Bildman told the company to bill Astra for the bulk of the work.

That apparently cavalier behavior finally seems to have caught up with Bildman. Federal agents arrested the 51-year-old Swedish ex-executive on Mar. 12 at the Viking Retreat, his Killington (Vt.) vacation home, and charged him with 35 counts, including fraud and tax evasion. According to the indictment, Bildman bilked Astra out of more than $1 million by getting the company to pay for unauthorized personal expenses, including renovations, family vacations, and even cruises aboard yachts staffed with high-priced prostitutes. Astra says it had no idea this was happening. "Mr. Bildman," says First Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark W. Pearlstein, "treated Astra as if it were his own personal piggy bank."

BURIED TREASURE. The criminal indictment is just the latest headache for Bildman, who was fired last June after BUSINESS WEEK exposed allegations of rampant sexual harassment and other abuses at Astra USA, a unit of Swedish drugmaker Astra. Bildman's attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr., says his client "vigorously and unequivocally denies the allegations set forth by the government." And in the past, he has said that Bildman paid for the renovations himself.

According to the indictment, though, Bildman used a fairly straightforward scheme to get Astra to pay for the renovations. He simply used many of the contractors working on an expansion of Astra's Westborough (Mass.) headquarters campus. Bildman told the contractors to bury the cost of his personal work in their regular invoices, Pearlstein says. And though Bildman paid for a portion of the work, the true costs were far higher, sources close to the case claim--in part because of Bildman's extravagance.

The landscaping is a case in point. Steiman's landscaping firm did more than $200,000 worth of work at Bildman's Brookline mansion, according to office manager Frank Haley. Besides moving the driveway, the company planted 18-foot trees, installed a sprinkler system, and more. "The excavators were there one whole summer just doing stuff," says Haley, who adds that nearly everything was billed to Astra.

Bildman's high living at Astra's expense also included several libidinous cruises, the indictment says. Prosecutors won't provide details, but sources say one such trip was made June 28-30, 1995. Bildman and two other Astra execs took a three-day trip aboard the 72-foot motor yacht Lady Els in Florida. Captain Harry Furey says he was told the execs would be bringing their girlfriends. But, he says, "it didn't take a brain surgeon to figure out what was going on" when three attractive women boarded--and introduced themselves to the men.

HIRED HELP. During the trip, Furey recalls, the execs guzzled wine, ogled when the women sunbathed topless, and frequently disappeared into the staterooms with them. Total cost of the cruise: $5,150-- not counting the prostitutes. The indictment says that on several such cruises, Bildman paid prostitutes as much as $1,500 a day apiece and had Astra foot the bill.

One potential Bildman defense is that higher-level Astra execs winked at his extravagances, which the company denies. MacLeish will not comment on Bildman's potential defense. But Bildman may have made a crucial error in 1996, when, prosecutors say, the BUSINESS WEEK probe provoked him to attempt a coverup. They claim that he destroyed Astra records and asked contractors to destroy records of work on his homes. Legal experts predict that prosecutors will argue the alleged coverup is evidence of Bildman's guilt.

Bildman's 12-room Brookline house is now up for sale, for $2.8 million. The listing sheet says that it has been "totally redone" and is "lushly landscaped." Maybe the next owner will decide that the driveway is just fine where it is.By Mark Maremont in Boston


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