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Apple’s Steve Jobs likely to avoid criminal charges in options probe

Months into a federal investigation of stock options backdating at Apple, prospects for a criminal case against powerhouse CEO Steve Jobs appear dim.

A Mercury News examination of a massive 2001 stock-options grant to Jobs that was backdated through bogus documentation – the central focus of the federal probe – shows there is scant evidence, if any, to support criminal charges against the Silicon Valley icon.

Despite Apple’s disclosure that Jobs approved widespread backdating at Apple, there is no evidence he directed the backdating of his own grant or covered it up afterward, based on a review of regulatory filings and interviews with lawyers intimately familiar with the grant who asked not to be identified.

Without such proof, federal prosecutors do not have the type of egregious misconduct they’ve targeted in the blossoming options scandal.

A close review of the events that led to the controversial grant reveals that the backdating emerged from a good-faith, although clumsy, attempt by Apple’s board of directors to reward their star CEO for resurrecting a moribund company.

A decision not to indict Jobs would carry enormous significance for Apple and its shareholders, who’ve fretted the scandal might lead to the CEO’s ouster. His loss would be a body blow to the company. Jobs is not only Apple’s chief spokesman and evangelist, he is Apple, playing a key role in decisions big and small.

But Jobs has been on the hot seat since last year, when Apple acknowledged that it backdated thousands of grants to employees, sometimes at Jobs’ direction.

An internal investigation released in December found no evidence of wrongdoing by Jobs, but that did not remove the cloud of suspicion over the company’s powerful CEO. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco have continued to probe the matter, including interviewing Jobs, and signs point to the SEC soon finishing its investigation.

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Apple, Steve Jobs

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