Thursday, June 02, 2005

Arthur Andersen: Not like a black fly in your chardonnay

Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" has been criticized for lyrics that don't describe irony so much as situations that just suck. True irony is a situation that isn't necessarily bad and could even be good, but that does have an unexpected, bizarre kind of twist. The overturning of the Arthur Andersen conviction is a better example of irony, but I'm not going to write that song.

As I've blogged before, I was at Arthur Andersen when it went under. My 14-month job there seems increasingly Gump-like as I get farther from it, but working as a secretary in the audit department was actually one of the best jobs I've ever had. I loved my job and -- get this -- I looked forward to Monday mornings. Have I ever felt that way about another job? No. It's damn rare and it's another of the great suckinesses of my life that I had planned to stay at Andersen for a good long time when it went under. Just went out of business. Poof.

Here's what happened:

Once upon a time, an established, “gold standard” accounting firm took on a very impressive and growing company called Enron. In order to keep its stock price high, Enron lied to its shareholders and Arthur Andersen, the auditor of Enron's financial books, never spoke up about it. When the Enron shit hit the fan in December, 2001, Andersen knew it was going to have to account (yes) for its role. So it started shredding documents related to its audit of Enron. Shredding, shredding, shredding, day and night until the U.S. government asked Andersen for documents related to its audit of Enron. That's when the shredding stopped. Eventually the U.S. government found out about the shredding and indicted (which means "accused") Andersen of obstructing justice. The U.S. Department of Justice handed down that indictment on Thursday, March 11, 2002. By mid-April most of Andersen's clients had fled and Andersen had begun laying off thousands of employees, including me. In about a month, Arthur Andersen went from being one of the Big Five accounting firms, employing 85,000 employees globally, to being effectively dead in the water. At the end of the summer it ceased to function as an accounting firm. Their once impressive and extensive website, is now reduced to this: Tumbleweeds now blow in the deserted halls and conference rooms.

You know what? I DON'T NEED TO HEAR THIS, PEOPLE. As a former Andersen employee who was heartbroken to lose my favorite job at the same time that I learned my company had acted like unethical (but still legal) slimeballs, I don't need to hear that the Supreme Court has now thrown out the 2002 conviction (that followed the death of the company); we are now free to resume business as usual. First of all, Andersen was far from innocent of unethical behaviors that should have been illegal. Secondly, it gives me no joy, no satisfaction and no comfort to know that pesky accusation of obstruction of justice that sank our livelihoods has now been swept clear from the record. We employees needed that to happen during that one critical week of March 11, 2002 when the indictment was first handed down. Maybe Andersen could have survived even if it had happened during that second critical week, but by the end of the month our story was written and the ending sealed so thanks a lot, Wheels of Justice.

That's enough memory lane for me. Between remembering how sad it was to leave my desk for the last time and the lesson that corporate America really can't be trusted, I don't need the details of how the Supreme Court vindicated Arthur Andersen. Hanging's too good for most of the top players in the Enron mess (including David Duncan, the Andersen auditor in charge of the Enron account), and I'll never have that job again. Morissette wrote her song a decade too soon.

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