Milken was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 in an insider trading investigation. As the result of a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to securities and reporting violations but not to racketeering or insider trading. Milken was sentenced to ten years in prison, fined $600 million, and permanently barred from the securities industry by the Securities and Exchange Commission. His sentence was later reduced to two years for cooperating with testimony against his former colleagues and for good behavior.
His critics cited him as the epitome of Wall Street greed during the 1980s, and nicknamed him the "Junk Bond King".
Since his release from prison, Milken has funded medical research. He is co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, chairman of the Milken Institute, and founder of medical philanthropies funding research into melanoma, cancer and other life-threatening diseases. A prostate cancer survivor, Milken has devoted significant resources to research on the disease. In a November 2004 cover article, Fortune magazine called him "The Man Who Changed Medicine" for changes in approach to funding and results that he initiated.
Milken's compensation, while head of the high-yield bond department at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the late 1980s, exceeded $1 billion in a four-year period, a new record for U.S. income at that time. With an estimated net worth of around $2 billion as of 2010, he is ranked by Forbes magazine as the 488th richest person in the world.
Milken was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Encino, California. He graduated from Birmingham High School where he was the head cheerleader and worked while in school at a diner. His classmates included actresses Sally Field and Cindy Williams. In 1968, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.S. with highest honors where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. He received his MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While at Berkeley, Milken was influenced by credit studies authored by W. Braddock Hickman, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, who noted that a portfolio of non-investment grade bonds offered "risk-adjusted" returns greater than that of an investment grade portfolio.
Through his Wharton professors, Milken landed a summer job at Drexel Harriman Ripley, an old-line investment bank, in 1969. After completing his MBA, he joined Drexel (by then known as Drexel Firestone) as director of low-grade bond research. He was also given some capital and permitted to trade. Over the next 17 years, he would have only four down months.
Drexel merged with Burnham and Company in 1973 to form Drexel Burnham. Despite the firm's name, Burnham was the nominal survivor; the Drexel name only came first at the insistence of the more powerful investment banks, whose blessing was necessary for the merged firm to inherit Drexel's position as a "major" firm. Milken was one of the few prominent holdovers from the Drexel side of the merger, and became the merged firm's head of convertibles. He persuaded his new boss, fellow Wharton alumnus Tubby Burnham, to let him start a high-yield bond trading department—an operation that soon earned a 100% return on investment. By 1976, Milken's income at what was now Drexel Burnham Lambert was estimated at $5 million a year.
In 1978, Milken moved the high-yield bond operation to Century City in Los Angeles.
By the mid-1980s, Milken's network of high-yield bond buyers (notably Fred Carr's Executive Life Insurance Company and Tom Spiegel's Columbia Savings & Loan) had reached a size which enabled him to raise large amounts of money very quickly.
This money-raising ability also facilitated the activities of leveraged buyout (LBO) firms such as Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and of so-called "greenmailers". Most of them were armed with a "highly confident letter" from Drexel, a tool crafted by Drexel's corporate finance wing in which it promised to raise the necessary debt in time to fulfill the buyer's obligations. Although it carried no legal status, by this time Milken had gained a reputation for being able to make markets for any bonds that he underwrote. For this reason, "highly confident letters" were considered to reliably demonstrate capacity to pay.
Amongst his significant detractors have been Martin Fridson formerly of Merrill Lynch and author Ben Stein. Milken's high-yield "pioneer" status has proved dubious as studies show "original issue" high-yield issues were common during and after the Great Depression. Milken himself points out that high-yield bonds go back hundreds of years, having been issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century and by America's first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Others such as Stanford Phelps, an early co-associate and rival at Drexel, have also contested his credit as pioneering the modern high-yield market.
Despite his influence in the financial world during the 1980s (at least one source called him the most powerful American financier since J.P. Morgan), Milken was an intensely private man who shunned publicity. Citing the power behind the most aggressive firm on Wall Street, Drexel bankers often used "Michael says ..." to justify their tactics.
Milken and his brother Lowell founded Knowledge Universe in 1996, as well as Knowledge Learning Corporation (KLC), the parent company of KinderCare Learning Centers, the largest for-profit child care provider in the country. He is currently chairman of the company. Milken also established K12 Inc., a publicly traded education management organization (EMO) that provides online schooling, including to charter school students for whom services are paid by tax dollars, which is the largest EMO in terms of enrollment.
Dan Stone, a former Drexel executive, wrote in his book April Fools that Milken was under nearly constant scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1979 onward due to unethical and sometimes illegal behavior in the high-yield department. His own role in such behavior has been much debated. Stone claims that Milken viewed the securities laws, rules and regulations with a degree of contempt, feeling they hindered the free flow of trade. However, Stone said that while Milken condoned questionable and illegal acts by his colleagues, Milken himself personally followed the rules. He often called Drexel's president and CEO, Fred Joseph—known for his strict view of the securities laws—with ethical questions.
On the other hand, several of the sources James B. Stewart used for Den of Thieves told him that Milken often tried to get a higher markup on trades than was permitted at the time.
Harvey A. Silverglate, a prominent defense attorney who represented Milken during the appellate process, disputes that view in his book Three Felonies a Day: “Milken’s biggest problem was that some of his most ingenious but entirely lawful maneuvers were viewed, by those who initially did not understand them, as felonious, precisely because they were novel – and often extremely profitable.”
The SEC inquiries never got beyond the investigation phase until 1986, when arbitrageur Ivan Boesky pleaded guilty to securities fraud as part of a larger insider trading investigation. As part of his plea, Boesky implicated Milken in several illegal transactions, including insider trading, stock manipulation, fraud and stock parking (buying stocks for the benefit of another). This led to an SEC probe of Drexel, as well as a separate criminal probe by Rudy Giuliani, then United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Although both investigations were almost entirely focused on Milken's department, Milken refused to talk with Drexel (which launched its own internal investigation) except through his lawyers.
For two years, Drexel insisted that nothing illegal occurred, even when the SEC formally sued Drexel in 1988. Later that year, Giuliani began considering an indictment of Drexel under the powerful Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Drexel management immediately began plea bargain talks, concluding that no financial institution could survive a RICO indictment. However, talks collapsed on December 19 when Giuliani made several demands that Drexel found too harsh, including one that Milken leave the firm if indicted.
Only a day later, however, Drexel lawyers discovered suspicious activity in one of the limited partnerships Milken set up to allow members of his department to make their own investments. That entity, MacPherson Partners, had acquired several warrants for the stock of Storer Broadcasting in 1985. At the time, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts was in the midst of a leveraged buyout of Storer, and Drexel was lead underwriter for the bonds being issued. One of Drexel's other clients bought several Storer warrants and sold them back to the high-yield bond department. The department in turn sold them to MacPherson. This partnership included Milken, other Drexel executives, and a few Drexel customers. However, it also included several managers of money market funds who had worked with Milken in the past. It appeared that the money managers bought the warrants for themselves and didn't offer the same opportunity to the funds they managed. Some of Milken's children also got warrants, according to Stewart, raising the appearance of Milken self-dealing.
However, the warrants to money managers were especially problematic. At the very least, Milken's actions were a serious breach of Drexel's internal regulations, and the money managers had breached their fiduciary duty to their clients. At worst, the warrants could have been construed as bribes to the money managers to influence decisions they made for their funds. Indeed, several money managers were eventually convicted on bribery charges. The discovery of MacPherson Partners—whose very existence had not been known to the public at the time—seriously eroded Milken's credibility with the board. On December 21, 1988, Drexel entered a guilty plea to six counts of stock parking and stock manipulation. Drexel said it was "not in a position to dispute the allegations" made by the government. As part of the deal, Drexel agreed that Milken had to leave the firm if indicted.
In March 1989, a federal grand jury indicted Milken on 98 counts of racketeering and fraud. The indictment accused Milken of a litany of misconduct, including insider trading, stock parking (concealing the real owner of a stock), tax evasion and numerous instances of repayment of illicit profits. One charge was that Boesky paid Drexel $5.3 million in 1986 for Milken's share of profits from illegal trading. This payment was represented as a consulting fee to Drexel. Shortly afterward, Milken resigned from Drexel and formed his own firm, International Capital Access Group.
On April 24, 1990, Milken pleaded guilty to six counts of securities and tax violations. Three of them involved dealings with Ivan Boesky to conceal the real owner of a stock.Aiding and abetting another person's failure to file an accurate 13d statement with the SEC, since the schedule was not amended to reflect an understanding that any loss would be made up.
Sending confirmation slips through the mail that failed to disclose that a commission was included in the price.
Aiding and abetting another in filing inaccurate broker-dealer reports with the SEC.
Two other counts were related to tax evasion in transactions Milken carried out for a client of the firm, David Solomon, a fund manager.Selling stock without disclosure of an understanding that the purchaser would not lose money.
Agreeing to sell securities to a customer and to buy those securities back at a real loss to the customer, but with an understanding that he would try to find a future profitable transaction to make up for any losses.
The last count was for conspiracy to commit these five violations.
As part of his plea, Milken agreed to pay $200 million in fines. At the same time, he agreed to a settlement with the SEC in which he paid $400 million to investors who had been hurt by his actions. He also accepted a lifetime ban from any involvement in the securities industry. In a related civil lawsuit against Drexel he agreed to pay $500 million to Drexel's investors. In total this means that he paid $1.1 billion for all lawsuits related to his actions while working at Drexel.
Critics of the government charge that the government indicted Milken's brother Lowell in order to put pressure on Milken to settle, a tactic condemned as unethical by some legal scholars. "I am troubled by - and other scholars are troubled by - the notion of putting relatives on the bargaining table," said Vivian Berger, a professor at Columbia University Law School, in a 1990 interview with the New York Times. As part of the deal, the case against Lowell was dropped. Federal investigators also questioned some of Milken's relatives about their investments.
At Milken's sentencing, Judge Kimba Wood told him:
You were willing to commit only crimes that were unlikely to be detected.... When a man of your power in the financial world... repeatedly conspires to violate, and violates, securities and tax business in order to achieve more power and wealth for himself... a significant prison term is required.
In statements to a parole board in 1991, Judge Wood estimated that the "total loss from Milken's crimes" was $318,000, less than the government's estimate of $4.7 million and she recommended that he be eligible for parole in 3 years. Milken's sentence was later reduced to two years from ten; he served 22 months.
In February 2013, the SEC announced that they were investigating whether Milken violated his lifetime ban from the securities industry. The investigation was based around Milken allegedly providing investment advice through Guggenheim Partners. Since 2011, the SEC has been investigating Guggenheim’s relationship with client Milken.
In 1982, Milken and his brother Lowell founded the Milken Family Foundation to support medical research and education. Through the Milken Educator Awards (founded in 1985), the MFF has awarded a total of more than $60 million to more than 2,500 teachers. Among the other initiatives of the Milken Family Foundation are the:Milken Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan economic think tank whose scholars publish research papers and conduct conferences on global and regional economies, human capital, demographics and capital markets. Each spring, the Institute hosts a Global Conference in Los Angeles;
Milken Scholars, a program that provides outstanding high school graduates with a commitment of four years of college financial assistance, counseling, volunteer opportunities and preparation for graduate studies;
TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement, a comprehensive research-based strategy to attract, develop, motivate and retain high-quality teachers for America's schools;
Mike's Math Club, a curriculum enrichment program that aims to shows students in inner-city elementary schools that math is not only useful, but entertaining;
Festival for Youth, a school-based community service program that engages students in yearlong service projects to help build vibrant communities; and the
Milken Family Foundation Epilepsy Research Awards Program, which funds research to understand and conquer epilepsy.
Upon his release from prison in 1993, Milken founded the Prostate Cancer Foundation for prostate cancer research, which by 2010 was "the largest philanthropic source of funds for research into prostate cancer." Milken himself was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in the same month he was released. His cancer is currently in remission. The Prostate Cancer Foundation works closely with Major League Baseball through its Home Run Challenge program to promote awareness of prostate cancer and raise money for medical research. Each season in the weeks leading up to Father's Day, Milken visits many ballparks and appears on TV and radio broadcasts during the games.
In 2003, Milken launched a Washington, D.C.-based think tank called FasterCures, which seeks greater efficiency in researching all serious diseases. Key initiatives of FasterCures are TRAIN, Partnering for Cures and the Philanthropy Advisory Service.
Fortune magazine called Milken "The Man Who Changed Medicine" in a 2004 cover story on his philanthropy.
In September 2012, Milken and the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, jointly hosted 1,000 senior medical scientists, patients, activists, philanthropists, regulators, and members of Congress at a three-day conference to demonstrate the return on investment in medical research.
On March 11, 2014, President Steven Knapp of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. announced the university would rename its public health school after Milken as a result of a total of $80 million in gifts, $50 million from the Milken Institute and the Milken Family Foundation and $30 million gift from Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone. These gifts are designated to research and scholarship on public health issues.
Milken is married to Lori Anne Hackel, whom he had dated in high school. They have three children.