W. DOUG SPRAGUEHe was born William Douglas Sprague. On one occasion, I heard someone call him "Bill" and he seemed to grimace. He was not a "Bill" - he was a "Doug."
When I was 10, there were numerous movie theatres that charged 5 cents or 10 cents for "silent" films. There was no sound, but an experienced lady sat up front at a player piano. If "bad guys" had tied the heroine to the railroad tracks, she played the music dramatic and heart-rending. But soon the good guys were galloping on the scene and untied the frightened heroine - to great applause from the audience.
My favorite silent film actor was Douglas Fairbanks Sr., handsome, mustachioed, who wore a bandana when he was swinging from tree to tree to the screams of the kids in the audience. Douglas Fairbanks was married to the beautiful blonde actress Mary Pickford. His son by a previous marriage, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was equally handsome and mustachioed. I met him on numerous occasions because he rented a room from a client of mine at 345 Park Avenue where we sometimes exchanged bon mots. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were "Dougs" in the real sense of the word.
Doug Sprague was one of the most complicated men I ever knew. He always was thinking, thinking, thinking.
I had a year to observe him at close range. In June 1971, Doug Sprague, who was managing partner of Arthur Andersen's New York office, had been elected president of the New York State Society of CPAs and I had been elected president-elect. I sat at his right hand at board meetings, executive committee meetings and chapter visitations. The officers of the state society traveled to, and held meetings in, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Oneonta. The society president conducted the meeting, usually with some opening remarks.
During Doug Sprague's tenure as president of the New York State Society and member of AICPA Council, the accounting profession was confronted with numerous accounting and auditing issues. Doug and I frequently discussed these matters and I noticed a personal characteristic of his - Doug seemed to ponder the question, pucker his lips, blow out a soft kiss and say, "You learn to live with it." On June 10, 1972, when Doug Sprague introduced me as the new president of the state society, he said that just before the meeting, a state society member approached him and asked, "What will happen with Eli Mason as president?" Doug puckered his lips, blew out a soft kiss and said, "Like everything else, we'll learn to live with it."
Doug Sprague did not try to tell amusing stories; he was all business. When we came to Rochester, it was a sunny and pleasant afternoon. Doug and I sat on lawn chairs and I noticed that he was rubbing his hands together: "If we could only get one of the Big Three auto companies." I realized that Doug was always thinking about Arthur Andersen.
On one occasion, there was a warming episode in our relationship. The state society had formed a Nassau County (Long Island) Chapter. When we were driving to the new chapter, Doug said, "My daughter has just purchased a home on Long Island. I would like to stop and look at the house." Doug and his daughter took a tour, leaving me with his adorable three-year-old granddaughter. I knew how to entertain little girls - I had two of my own. I opened my wallet with photos of Judy and Nina. She loved it, but I ran out of photos and she asked for more. So, I took out a $1 bill with a picture of George Washington and asked, "Do you know who this is?" She said, "Grandpa."
Back in the car, I told Doug the story and he laughed hysterically.
I was told that Andersen partners earned the highest salaries of the Big Eight firms, rather than allocating more earnings to partners' pensions. Perhaps the high salaries caused the firm's fall.
The Baptist Foundation of Arizona, an Arthur Andersen client, marketed securities where funds from new investors were used to pay off old investors, who received huge returns. The scheme was an obvious Ponzi - so obvious that any junior accountant could see through it. The Andersen partner in charge of the audit earned $1 million annually, according to investigative reporter Craig Harris from The Arizona Republic, who reported, "Nearly 13,000 investors, including many senior citizens, lost $590 million in the foundation's failure."
Forty-three-year-old David Duncan, the partner in charge of the Enron audit, earned $1 million per annum. At that time, Sherron Watkins, a vice president of accounting at Enron, told Enron chairman Kenneth Lay of the pending "implosion" - to Lay's nods and smiles.
Was there a gradual deterioration of Andersen's once lofty standards? Who knows?
The firm was founded in 1913 by Arthur Andersen and Clarence Delany as Andersen, Delany & Co. The firm changed its name to Arthur Andersen & Co. in 1918. Arthur Andersen's first client was the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.
The firm expanded rapidly, was known for high standards of performance, and Mr. Andersen's motto was, "Think straight, talk straight." Arthur Andersen died in 1947 and was succeeded by the brilliant Leonard Spacek, who continued the firm's high standards of performance.
Fortunately, neither Arthur Andersen nor Leonard Spacek nor my friend Doug Sprague were there to witness the fall.
Eli Mason, CPA, is a past president of the New York State Society of CPAs, a past chairman of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, and a past vice president of the American Institute of CPAs.
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