Although I’m not a lawyer, I’m often amused at some of the defenses offered up by folks on trial. And to be sure, there have been a host of them that strained the limits of reality. As evidence, tune into Court TV for an eye-opening dose of “truth stranger than fiction,” among legal defenses.
None in my opinion, topped one defendant from Arizona, who, when charged with fatally stabbing his wife 44 times several years ago, contested that she had interrupted him while sleepwalking.
Amidst the massive accounting scandals that have broadsided the profession over the past two years, thus far no defendant had offered up a defense to rival that of our homicidal somnambulist.
Enter Calisto Tanzi.
Tanzi, the founder of European conglomerate Parmalat SpA, who, while sitting in jail amid fraud charges as part of an accounting scandal that could reach $12 billion in scope, claimed that he didn’t take any real money from the company — because its assets were fabricated in the first place.
This, remember, from a man who is charged with market-rigging and basically lying to regulators about the financial health of the multinational food company to the tune of about $1 billion. Officials opined that egregious accounting at Parmalat might have gone on for as long as 15 years.
According to Tanzi’s barrister, there had been some credit items on Parmalat’s financials that, well, basically were pure fabrication and therefore, explained one of Italy’s great legal minds, “It wasn’t that the money disappeared, it’s that some items didn’t exist.”
Tanzi is one of some 20 officials of now-bankrupt Parmalat being investigated for fraud.
Imagine the legal precedent if that ludicrous defense were allowed to stand? Such luminaries from recent accounting scandals as Fastow, Ebbers, Sullivan and Kozlowski, would line up in orderly fashion and instruct their counselors to “have at it.”
But in all seriousness, outside of a Woody Allen movie I doubt any defendant could get much mileage out of that one.
And while we’re on the subject of sleepwalking, Parmalat’s auditor Grant Thornton has come under fire for taking 40 winks. But Grant Thornton, which served as Parmalat’s auditor from 1990 to 1999, is attempting to portray itself as a victim of this massive malfeasance of earnings manipulation.
Now just try saying that in Italian.
The chief of Grant Thornton's Italian operations said, "If anything, it was we who were victims of grave fraud."
Somehow I don’t think that the statement will elicit an outpouring of sympathy.
Although no executives of the firm have been charged, the firm is bracing itself for a stern inquiry from Milanese prosecutors as they try to unravel an accounting mess that could equal, if not exceed, WorldCom in terms of size.
Just think: If convicted, Parmalat’s Tanzi could be told that he’s not really in a prison cell because he stole money that really didn’t exist.
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