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Charles Wang's Messy Second Act


The ex-CEO of '90s highflier Computer Associates is trying real estate. But his past won't stay behind him

New York entrepreneur Charles B. Wang, who made his mark in software, is busy reinventing himself as a real estate tycoon. He's pushing a mammoth $3.8 billion mixed-use development in suburban Hempstead, Long Island, surrounding the Nassau Coliseum, where his New York Islanders hockey team plays.

Since the project will include a fix-up of the Coliseum, which the plain-spoken Wang calls a "dump," it has won the backing of pols, including Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). But Wang is running into resistance from local leaders over concerns that the 150-acre development will adversely affect traffic and the environment.

After waiting nearly two years to get the project approved, Wang is threatening to uproot the Islanders if Hempstead doesn't O.K. his plans soon. Tensions are escalating. "I don't give him a deadline for delivering the Stanley Cup to Long Island, and he shouldn't give us a deadline for approving his project," says Kate Murray, the Hempstead supervisor.

Wang seems to attract controversy. In the go-go 1990s, when he ran software giant Computer Associates, he cut a ragged path through the tech industry with dozens of layoff-causing acquisitions and rancorous relations with corporate customers. Then the company imploded amid Justice Dept. charges that its executives had violated accounting and securities laws. Eight of them went to jail. But Wang, the company's chairman during the period investigated, was not prosecuted.

Hard as he tries, Wang is having difficulty leaving his past behind. His former company, renamed CA (CA), last month filed court papers seeking to recover compensation it paid to Wang, including a $600 million-plus performance bonus. "CA's Special Litigation Committee concluded that Mr. Wang knew of, directed, and participated in the premature recognition of revenue," says spokesperson Jennifer Hallahan. Wang denies any culpability. Of CA's effort to recover money from him, he says: "What they've done is shameful. They should focus on the business and move on."

CONCILIATORY NOTE

The company's claim is based in part on a jailhouse deposition by former CA Chief Executive Sanjay Kumar, who is serving a 12-year sentence in a minimum-security federal prison in New Jersey. Kumar stated that Wang "personally directed" the illegal accounting practice that landed him and the other CA managers in jail. Wang rejects Kumar's allegation: "He's the one who pleaded guilty." Through his lawyer, Kumar declined comment.

Wang insists that his critics have him all wrong. He claims his real estate plans are motivated partly by his love for Long Island, where he grew up after immigrating from China at age 8. Wang's project is the largest development proposed on the island since the building of Levittown after World War II. Says Wang: "It could be a catalyst for the rebirth of Long Island," an area that has lost a lot of manufacturing jobs. Wang claims the 42-building development would create 19,000 permanent positions. Even though he's impatient with the slow progress, Wang is sounding a conciliatory note. "I have never said I won't compromise," he says.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, another fan of Long Island, once wrote: "There are no second acts in American lives." Wang has proven Fitzgerald wrong, but it remains to be seen whether his second act will end better than his first.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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