During my editorial career I traditionally have shied away from writing book reviews or even offering commentary on a just-published tome.
It’s not because I don’t have an appreciation for the beautifully written word, or a juicy tell-all, but I’m reticent to become embroiled in the all-too-familiar practice of literary "log rolling" – or "If you say something nice about my work I’ll say something nice about yours."
However, after reading "Final Accounting" by Barbara Ley Toffler, former partner-in-charge of Arthur Andersen’s Ethics & Responsible Business Practices, I felt it was time to break precedent.
Toffler, one of the country’s foremost management ethics experts, describes the shocking metamorphosis in the firm’s culture from the conscience of the profession (led by men such as Arthur Andersen and, later, Leonard Spacek) to an arrogant and greedy billing machine obsessed with revenue growth and hard-selling myriad consulting services to the exclusion of all else. Andersen’s "One Firm" mantra stifled repeated attempts by Toffler’s group to implement a formal ethics program.
Toffler, an outsider who was brought in to AA in 1995, also chronicles the years of growing enmity between Andersen’s auditors and its consulting practice, a rift that became so wide that employees in the two divisions did not even acknowledge each other in elevators. She also makes repeated references to "Androids" — those Andersen employees who had been programmed to live and breathe the firm’s cultural and social mores.
And while the non-accounting public is probably most familiar with the debacle at Enron, Toffler points out, as many others had before her, that there were in fact sufficient warning signals with auditing failures at AA clients such as Cendant, Baptist Foundation of Arizona, Waste Management and Boston Chicken, that something larger and more dangerous lay just below the surface.
The audit failures had become so rampant and the Andersen brand became so tarnished that when the author attended a conference a former client from her consulting days chided her in earshot of everyone, "So you’re with Arthur Andersen now. I hear they don’t do anything with ethics."
To be fair, proponents and former Andersen employees would charge that Ms. Toffler has an ax to grind since her book contains few fond memories of her tenure there. In fact, I found myself wondering on more than one occasion why someone toiling in what appeared to be oppressive and frustrating work environment would remain there as long as she did.
Like most exposés, "Final Accounting" did not offer readers a happy ending, detailing the indictment by the Justice Department and the conviction on obstruction of justice charges that resulted in the collapse of the 89-year old firm.
In an odd literary parallel, "Final Accounting" reminded me of "Pumping Iron," the now 30-year old book, that detailed the lives of men who pursue the sport of bodybuilding. Even if you lifted nothing heavier than a fountain pen, it was the kind of insider book that captured your attention. The same could be said for Final Accounting – even those who can’t balance a checkbook will find it a disturbing schematic of a major accounting firm in free fall.
But for those in the profession it’s especially worth a look, for the auditor who ignores history is probably doomed to repeat it.
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