It's probably not surprising that the stock option grant practices at Monster Worldwide (NASDAQ:MNST) have triggered a criminal investigation. The company admitted last month that it had engaged in "intentional" backdating over a period of six years.

But many people were surprised by a report in today's Wall Street Journal that prosecutors are focusing on Monster's former general counsel, who had apparently admitted in emails that he knew of the fudging going on, and had suggested that "finessing" the company's outside auditors would be necessary. An electronic paper trail will get you every time.

The online job-listing service said it overstated earnings by $272 million over nine years, failing to record appropriate compensation expenses associated with the stock options. It also admitted that its CEO got some company-paid insurance benefits for relatives and personal employees, expenses for which company founder Andrew McKelvey paid back some $533,000, including interest. McKelvey stepped down from the CEO position in the wake of the revelations, then resigned from the board of directors after refusing to answer further questions from lawyers conducting the internal probe.

Stock options, as we know only too well by now, are supposed to align management and shareholder interests, giving the holder the right to buy a stock in the future at today's price. In theory, this gives managers the incentive to produce value for the company, raising the price of its stock well above the option's "strike price." Backdating, however, subverts that goal by giving the holder an immediate potential profit; the date at which it's granted is moved back in time to a point when the price was even lower.

Backdating also lets companies boost their earnings, because accounting rules mandate that options granted "at the money" -- the original strike price -- are a compensation expense, while options which are already "in the money" -- including those that were backdated -- are not. That's why Monster's lowering its net income for the past nine years.

Backdating scandals have erupted at more than 150 companies (see the full SEC list here), including Broadcom (NASDAQ:BRCM), CNET (NASDAQ:CNET), KB Homes (NYSE:KBH), Rambus (NASDAQ:RMBS), and UnitedHealth (NYSE:UNH), causing nearly 60 executives to step down, resign, or be fired.

Interestingly, McKelvey himself did not benefit from the stock option backdating scheme, because he did not receive stock options from Monster. During the period of his tenure in which options were backdated, Monster grew from a Yellow Pages advertising concern, with $237 million in revenues and a market cap of about $735 million, to a global online job recruitment powerhouse, producing $1.2 billion annually and sporting a $6.4 billion valuation. Few could deny the value that McKelvey brought to the business.

Compare this company's post-scandal relationship with its CEO to that of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Steve Jobs. In both instances, the executives were apparently well aware of the backdating that was occurring; both did not "personally benefit" from the scheme; both backdated options to assist other employees; and both were founders who steered their companies and their investors to greater wealth. Yet in Monster's case, the CEO is gone, and facing much closer criminal scrutiny, while in Apple's instance, not only did the directors try to shield Jobs from blame, but shareholders are circling the wagons to protect him. They believe that his transgressions should be forgiven for the value he has brought to Apple. Prosecutors may not let him off so easy.

Meanwhile, it seems, Monster is facing the uglier questions first.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not own any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. UnitedHealth is also a selection of the Stock Advisor newsletter, while CNET is a Rule Breakers pick. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is always up-to-date.