Shock of getting away with something

Sunday, January 20, 2002

NEW YORK -- The accounting practices that brought down Enron Corp. and also cast doubt on the credibility and future of auditor Arthur Andersen have come as a great shock to the energy trader's employees and shareholders and plenty of other people who have watched Enron unravel.

Lately, much of the shock has come in response to news that Andersen executives ordered Enron documents shredded after the papers were requested by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Yet in one regard, that shock itself is surprising -- while the behavior of those involved is understandably being seen as lacking in ethics to an extreme, it probably has its roots in an integral part of human nature:

Getting away with something.

When it comes to the accountants and lawyers who work for the companies we invest in, Americans expect integrity and accountability. These are the people who are supposed to keep executives honest, who are supposed to ensure that the financial figures we base our investments on are accurate and truthful.

But as Enron's story reveals, executives can sometimes have a different objective, one that involves hiding debt and inflating profits, and they can sometimes look to the professionals to help achieve that. And sometimes those professionals collude with the company managers.

They're trying to get away with something.

While that idea unnerves many people, others are likely to nod knowingly -- finagling, juggling, shading and creative interpretations are a part of doing business, and hiding and obfuscation can be too.

Hidden debt, inflated profits

Almost all of us have done something less than above boards at some point in our lives. Even those of us who don't run a business.

We try to get away with something.

As you complete your income tax return, do you gently inflate the value of the clothing and furniture you donated to a charity? Or take a couple of receipts from dinner with friends and designate them as "business entertainment"?

Nobody's going to get hurt, you might think.

As you filled out your customs declaration after your trip abroad, did you massage the numbers a little or lose a receipt or two to bring the total of what you spent below the threshold where you'd have to pay duty?

Everybody does it, you think.

Without knowing what went inside the heads of Enron and Andersen executives, it's probably safe to assume that questionable practices at the two firms got their start in getting away with something.

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