The Sopranos

episodes are waning to a precious few, three left before the show is deep-sixed on June 10, my guess with a whimper, not a bang. I love the series even though, by my latest calculation, it costs $146 an episode to watch Big T and his mooks, the price of two orchestra seats to the Met.

Tony is a monster with horrible values, a penchant for violence, a decided alienation from the truth. That's terrific in entertainment and a problem in real life, as HBO recently discovered with one of its executives.

Earlier this month, hours after the match between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht staged his own fight in the MGM Grand's valet-parking area with his unwitting girlfriend, though she proved to be no contender.

Albrecht choked Karla Jensen, and police officers had to break his grip. The cable executive pleaded no contest. Jensen pleaded no problem. She's sticking with him.

Albrecht turned to the Mel Gibson Defense, alcohol, the excuse of the moment that doesn't wash well. Hooch doesn't make you choke women if the inclination isn't there. A drunk Tony would never hit Meadow, while Deadwood's Al Swearingen would smack even his favorite whore sober.

"This weekend was a wake-up call to me of a weakness I thought I had overcome long ago," Albrecht said in a statement two days after his arrest. "Two years ago, I decided that I could handle drinking again. Clearly, I was wrong." He announced his intention to take a temporary leave from his post.

HBO thought otherwise, forcing Albrecht to resign the next day from the channel that he spent 22 years building into the crown jewel of television programming.

Forced to resign. No one at the top just gets fired anymore, even men who habitually assault their girlfriends. Then again, HBO mints $1.2 billion annually, one of Time Warner's most profitable divisions. The problem, though, wasn't that Albrecht had tried to asphyxiate a girlfriend. It's that he had been caught.

In the 1960s, situational ethics challenged authority. Today, the establishment bends standards for the profitable or the ideologically like-minded. It's what the market might bear and revelations can be kept hidden.

In 1991, HBO paid a settlement between $400,000 and $500,000 to an Albrecht subordinate and former girlfriend who charged that he had choked her, the Los Angeles Times and Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood blog reported.

That's literal gag money. And you know who subsidized this so the problem would go away? HBO's viewers did. The settlement was authorized by Jeff Bewkes, now Time Warner's president who is expected to be named CEO next spring. There are at least two, possibly three, other women who have made similar allegations of Albrecht's abuse, Finke reports.

Situational ethics originally argued that decisions be directed by each specific set of circumstances, the only absolute being love. Today, the absolutes are money and power. The rich and powerful have always been different. It's just amazing that organizations will sponsor wrong behavior.

While many of us go years without salary increases, World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz secured his companion a $60,000 raise at the State Department, where she currently makes $10,000 more than her boss, Condoleezza Rice.

Of course, this pales in comparison to Wolfowitz's role as an architect of the Iraq war, using the threat of WMD and tying Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda while preying on a vulnerable post-9/11 nation's fears. For this, the former deputy defense secretary was rewarded with his post at the World Bank.

Former CIA chief George Tenet did little to stop Wolfowitz, President Bush and others from distorting intelligence, or the decided lack thereof. For his efforts, he received the Medal of Freedom and a $4 million book contract.

What this tells us is that rules are made to be twisted, at least for people in power. Situational ethics in the modern marketplace work like this: If the situation calls for it, ethics are negotiable and possibly disposable until, perhaps, someone gets caught holding a woman in one choke hold too many.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.