During the final chapter of his life, W.C. Fields was asked why, after a lifetime of vice and decadence, he took to voraciously reading the Bible. “I’m looking for a loophole,” he replied, as only W.C. could.

On occasion, I sort of know how he felt.

Although I eke out a marginal living with words, I’m still mystified, for example, by how language can be squeezed and rationalized into the suitcase of any spin doctor looking for a loophole.

Take the case of the fraud trial of Qwest, a Colorado-based telecoms concern. Although the case has not received the same high-profile headlines as Martha Stewart, Adelphia, Tyco, et al., four mid-level managers are charged with inflating the company’s revenues by about $34 million. Thus far, the testimony has contained more spinning than the DJ booth at New York’s famed China Club.

As an example, a Ms. Robin Szeliga, who served as chief financial officer for the company during a 14-month span and appeared as a witness for the prosecution, told defense attorneys that she was “not an accounting expert,” but rather “a financial professional.”

I found this a rather odd statement from a woman whose biography indicated that she has her CPA credential and 15 years of experience.

When a defense attorney reminded her of this extensive accounting pedigree, she replied that she was indeed licensed as an accountant, but that her license was set to expire within two months. She also had trouble recalling if she had ever enrolled in a continuing professional education course, or ever used the Securities and Exchange Commission Web site — something even I do at least once a day. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but it’s probably a good thing to monitor the latest regulatory rulings if you oversee the books at a public company.

But let’s not get off the subject.

Next up was Mark Iwan, the lead auditor on Qwest who, in a backpedal quicker than Joe Montana in his prime, sort of offered an “I’m just the auditor” explanation. Iwan said that he did not approve the transactions, but rather “gave an opinion on the transactions.”

This verbal three-card monte exchange prompted one local business columnist to label them “certified public amnesiacs.”

After its merger with US West, Qwest apparently suffered the perfunctory cutbacks that accompany most mega-unions, making the transition even more difficult due to the shortage of accountants — ergo, most transactions could not receive as much attention as they needed. In fact, the former chief executive threatened to begin dismissals if revenue goals veered from projections.

Since the dreaded “E” word first appeared on the scene nearly three years ago, the profession in general, and CPAs in particular, have undertaken a brand re-imaging effort of mammoth proportions. Depending on whom you ask, they have made varying measures of progress.

At a time when the profession is scouring the 2004 collegiate recruiting class for diamonds in the rough, wisdom would dictate that they distance themselves, and quickly, from the fool’s gold.

As the proverb goes, reputations are like fine china, easily broken and very difficult to repair. If nothing else, the recent events in a Denver courtroom unfortunately prove that there’s still a heap of repair work to be done.

Bill Carlino

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