About 15 years ago, I was attending an investment conference in New York, when I found myself sharing an elevator with an angular man replete with an admirable head of silvery hair and a manicured beard. I didn't know who he was at the time, but after many years in this business you instinctively know when someone is a VIP. It wasn't until a while later when I saw a story about him in BusinessWeek did I learn he was the chief executive of a fast-rising telecommunications company in Mississippi. I had essentially forgotten that brief encounter until several years ago when I again saw his picture in the paper. This time it was not a story depicting the growth of his company -- WorldCom -- but rather an expose about a series of accounting irregularities that had forced the carrier to restate its earnings by several billion dollars. I won't rehash what is certainly a painful and expensive memory for many who were affected by the WorldCom quagmire. As many of you know those curious accounting entries morphed into the largest bankruptcy in American history. It also resulted in a 25-year prison term for Bernie Ebbers, my elevator companion at that investment conference, a five-year sentence for Scott Sullivan, the company's CFO, and lighter terms for several of the complicit accountants. Each month, our office receives conservatively 20 books on various accounting topics, many of which., depending on their relevance to our readership, receive a blurb in our New Products section. Recently, however, a copy of "Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower" came across my desk. The book, written by Cynthia Cooper, the head of WorldCom's internal audit whose team uncovered the accounting fraud at the company, chronicles the rise and subsequent free-fall of what was up until the wheels came off, an "only in America" success story in the highly competitive telecommunications sector. But what I found most fascinating and, at the same time, frightening, was that many of those directly embroiled in the scandal were ordinary folks, regular churchgoers with families and mortgages who, faced with unyielding pressure from both superiors and Wall Street, made choices they never envisioned making. Conversely, members of Ms. Cooper's audit team were, in her words, "ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances." Faced with incredible resistance from upper management and the board, they persevered until the fraud ballooned so large that eventually swarms of federal prosecutors invaded the company's headquarters. Her efforts ultimately landed her on the cover of Time magazine along with Sherron Watkins of Enron and Coleen Rowley of the FBI as "People of the Year" in 2002. I won't inflate the book to the stature of calling it accounting's version of "All the President's Men," nor is it anywhere near as well written. To be fair, Ms. Cooper is an auditor by trade, not a writer and often it shows in redundancies and verbose backdrops. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating study of the quantum changes in character that accompany the accumulation of unimaginable wealth as well as an uncomfortable reminder of how, faced with an ethical fork in the road, just how easy it is for some to take a wrong turn.
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