While many corporate executives are publicly expressing their outrage over the soaring costs of complying with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, they may be consoled by the fact that the 2002 law seems to be having at least one intended consequence.

The tough new governance rules mean that fewer executives will be able to successfully use the clueless defense -- espoused in many recent, high-profile accounting scandals -- when it comes to laying blame for wrongdoing in corporate America.

Just ask former WorldCom chief Bernie Ebbers, who was recently convicted in spite of his claim that he knew nothing of the mammoth fraud that sent the telecom giant spiraling into bankruptcy. The dummy defense doesn't fly post-Sarbanes-Oxley.

In a recent survey by CFO magazine, 71 percent of public company finance chiefs said that it would not be possible for their CEO to remain unaware of a major financial fraud today, compared to 49 percent who said that was the case before Sarbanes-Oxley.

But don't expect miracles. Only a third of public company CFOs said that their CEO's understanding of finance has improved since SOX's enactment. Almost half (47 percent) said that it hasn't, while 21 percent weren't sure.

Slightly more reassuring is the fact that 46 percent said that their CEO's involvement has increased since the act's passage. And when asked how well their CEO understands finance issues, 34 percent of CFOs at public companies said "extremely well," while 46 percent said "very well," and 18 percent said "moderately well." Only 2 percent of CFOs rated their CEO's understanding of finance as "not too well," and none rated them poorly.

By the way, 62 percent of the same group said that it was "very unlikely" that Ebbers was unaware of the fraud at WorldCom, while 21 percent said that it was "somewhat unlikely." Of course, one has to wonder about the remaining 17 percent who responded that it was neither likely nor unlikely that Ebbers was unaware of the fraud (6 percent), somewhat likely (4 percent) or very likely (7 percent).

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