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Why the Rajat Gupta scandal won't hurt McKinsey

October 26, 2011: 11:27 AM ET

Insider trading charges against the former Goldman Sachs board member and McKinsey managing director will put the spotlight on the reputations of the two storied firms. But McKinsey -- and its clients -- have already moved on.

Rajat Gupta

Rajat Gupta

FORTUNE -- The perp walks continue. This morning, 62-year old Rajat Gupta, the former managing director of consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Company, turned himself into the FBI to face insider trading charges. Specifically, the feds allege that Gupta, in his role as a board member of Goldman Sachs, illegally passed on inside information to Raj Rajaratnam, a former hedge fund manager who was sentenced to 11 years in prison earlier this month.

Also this morning, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced a six-count indictment against the former consulting luminary, while the SEC reinstituted a civil case it had previously dropped. The charges against Gupta mean that the reputations of two of the most influential firms in the world—McKinsey and Goldman Sachs—are up for another of their periodic rakings over the coals.

The anti-banking contingent of the media has focused on the "involvement" of Goldman Sachs (GS) in this case, with the hope that somehow this news tarnishes the Wall Street titan. Sorry folks, but that's unlikely. As a non-executive board member, Gupta was nothing but an outside advisor to Goldman, and his possibly having sold their secrets to his Sri Lankan pal Rajaratnam says nothing whatsoever about the bankers, except that they clearly picked the wrong man for their board.

Then there are those enjoying a little schadenfreude at McKinsey's expense. If Goldman reeks of moneyed arrogance, McKinsey reeks of intellectual arrogance—the latter capable of producing just as visceral a response as the former. Those who have competed unsuccessfully against McKinsey or perhaps been a victim of its well-known downsizing advice have been licking their chops at just what this means for the fabled consultancy itself.

Short answer: Not much. While researching my upcoming book on McKinsey—to be published by Simon & Schuster in spring 2013—I have spoken to several dozen of the firm's current and former consultants over the past year-and-a-half about the whole Gupta mess. They're mortified, to be sure. But their most valuable asset—their client list—has been sympathetic. Business hasn't suffered at all.

McKinsey's psychological hold on its clients actually beggars belief. When consultant Anil Kumar—a Gupta protégé—pled guilty to actually selling McKinsey client information to Rajaratnam early last year, you might have expected the firm to lose a significant swath of their clientele. Not so. The firm still counts as clients a number of companies whose information Kumar was selling.

In a conversation I had with a McKinsey alum who is now a high-level executive at one of Wall Street's largest players, he suggested that the biggest fallout vis-à-vis McKinsey from the Gupta debacle would be to the firm's own psyche. And he's right—there are few firms that become as intertwined with their employees' self-image as McKinsey, and the fact that one of its former leaders has quite possibly repudiated every important value a McKinsey consultant holds dear has caused internal soul-searching. Ask a client's CEO, though, and he will likely tell you this: every CEO goes to bed at night worrying about a bad apple in their ranks—be it a rogue trader or a rogue consultant. As long as it's just a rogue, though, and not a systemic cultural issue, then the response is far more likely to be pity than anger.

(See also Rajat Gupta: Touched by scandal from Fortune magazine last year.)

News of this story first broke almost a year and a half ago, when Gupta abruptly stepped down from Goldman's board. (He also stepped down from his board seat at Procter & Gamble (PG) Many at McKinsey supported Gupta in that "he's innocent until proven guilty" kind of way—but the shock was still palpable. When actual wiretaps emerged this March, the firm decided to cut off relations with Gupta entirely. Current managing director Dominic Barton personally called Gupta to tell him he was now persona non grata at the firm. Needless to say, Gupta was not happy.

Which brings me to my final point. If this doesn't mean much for Goldman or McKinsey, despite the urgent wishes of some, what does it mean for Gupta himself? I'd say it's only going to get worse form here. The indictment against Gupta, released this morning, is pretty damning. The man could barely put the phone down after telephonic board meetings ended at Goldman before speed-dialing Rajaratnam to (allegedly) give him the news. In one instance, it took him 16 seconds. In another 23 seconds. (The man is 62. Give him a break if he loses a step or two as time passes.)

Specifically, the government has alleged that Gupta told Rajaratnam about Warren Buffett's $5 billion investment in Goldman in September 2008, after which Rajaratnam quickly bought Goldman shares. Second, that Gupta tipped Rajaratnam about Goldman's first-ever quarterly loss as a public company in October of that same year.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Gupta's lawyer Gary Naftalis has drawn a very clear line in the sand when it comes to his defense. Gupta "did not trade in any securities, did not tip Mr. Rajaratnam so he could trade, and did not share in any profits as part of any quid pro quo," Mr. Naftalis said.

Here's where this kangaroo court comes out on those claims. One: he probably didn't trade in any securities. That's too bad for him. If he had, he might be using some of those profits to pay for his own defense. Two: he almost certainly did tell Rajaratnam things he shouldn't have. On October 24, 2008, for example, wiretaps had Rajaratnam telling a colleague "I heard yesterday from somebody who's on the board of Goldman Sachs that they are going to lose $2 per share. The Street has them making $2.50."

The most interesting part of Gupta's apparent defense revolves around what one means by the word "profit." Naftalis keeps repeating that because Gupta never received any money or direct benefits from Rajaratnam, he can't possibly be guilty of insider trading. Naftalis is being a lawyer here, and nothing more. Because he was technically an insider, Gupta will likely be charged in the "classical" definition of insider trading, where pecuniary benefit is a necessary prerequisite to guilt. But there's precedent in other kinds of insider trading cases—the so-called "misappropriation" type—in which "personal benefits" can mean much more than money.

Which brings me to the obvious fact about Gupta, and, by extension, McKinsey. Unlike the Wall Street trader who wants nothing but money, Gupta was a consultant. And the coin of consultants is influence, not cash. Unfortunately for Gupta, the man whose influence he was currying is now in jail. Perhaps Rajaratnam will be able to do him some favors if they find themselves on the same cellblock.

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About This Author
Duff McDonald
Duff McDonald
Contributing Editor, Fortune

Duff McDonald is a contributing editor at Fortune. He has also written for New York, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Portfolio, GQ, WIRED, Time, Newsweek, and others. In 2004, he was the recipient of two Canadian National Magazine Awards -- best business story (gold) and best investigative reporting (silver) -- for "Conrad's Fall" in National Post Business. Last Man Standing, his biography of Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2009. He is also the co-author, with Owen Burke, of The CEO, a satire.

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