With the roster of recent corporate fraud trials, federal court dockets around the country must resemble the weekly TV grid that usually accompanies the weekend edition of your newspaper.
And in truth, what has transpired in the courtrooms often made for far better entertainment than, say The Contender (which is so uninspiring and flat that it may yet succeed in helping abolish professional boxing).
My favorite recurring thread in most of these cases is the defendant's claim of ignorance of accounting matters.
"I'm unschooled in accounting matters," squeaked former WorldCom chief executive Bernie Ebbers, as he tried to place blame for an $11 billion bankruptcy filing on his chief financial officer, Scott Sullivan. Now, while it's a little-known fact that the founder of McDonald's Corp., Ray Kroc, could not understand a typical balance sheet, it was far easier to grow a franchising business a half-century ago with limited financial education, than it was to build a mega-million-dollar telecommunications conglomerate in the late 1990s by absorbing a string of smaller companies.
Apparently the jury didn't believe Bernie either. The only cell he'll be using for the next 25 years or so will be one provided by the government, not by a wireless carrier.
Ditto for ex-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, due to go on trial in January, who tried to prove his innocence in the fraud at the energy trader by claiming, "I'm not an accountant."
Although the trials of Martha Stewart and Ebbers drew more attention - due in no small part to the fact that the venue was New York - an amusing series of events has unfolded further south, in a Birmingham, Ala., courtroom during the fraud trial of former HealthSouth chief executive Richard Scrushy, who is alleged to have engineered a $2.7 billion fraud at the outpatient services provider.
Last month, Big Four firm Ernst & Young, which served as HealthSouth's auditor from 1996 to 2002 - the years regulators claim that earnings were inflated by, oh, nine figures - filed suit against its former client.
The complaint charged HealthSouth with hiding massive fraud from the audit firm, and subsequently exposing it to litigation and damaging its reputation. According to the suit, E&Y is seeking reimbursement of litigation costs that it must pay in lawsuits related to the HealthSouth fraud, as well as unspecified damages for lost business.
Not to be trumped, HealthSouth subsequently accused E&Y of either intentionally or negligently failing to uncover the massive accounting fraud. HealthSouth contended that the Big Four firm's failure to uncover elements of the fraud represented a breach of contract. Suddenly, Scrushy's former company has become very savvy on the responsibilities of accountants and auditors.
On the flip side, the complaint was lodged against a firm that last year was slammed by the Securities and Exchange Commission for violating independence guidelines in its audits of former client PeopleSoft from 1994 to1999. The commission barred E&Y from accepting new auditing clients for six months, ordered the firm to give up $1.7 million in fees, and made it hire an independent consultant to review its policies on audit independence.
How far the suit and countersuit will go is a matter of conjecture. But I'm hoping that if it gets good enough, it will pre-empt The Contender.
No doubt the fights would be better.
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