Workers rally 'round company's flag

Thursday, March 21, 2002

CHICAGO -- From protest rallies to lobbying campaigns to newspaper ads, Arthur Andersen LLP and its 28,000 U.S. employees are fighting back with their firm's survival on the line and once-sterling reputation now the butt of jokes.

The new feistiness was on full display Wednesday when hundreds of employees clad in black-and-orange T-shirts declaring "I am Arthur Andersen" protested boisterously outside the Houston courthouse where the firm pleaded innocent to obstruction of justice charges.

Similar rallies are scheduled for Thursday in Philadelphia and on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, which Andersen employees nationwide have been bombarding this week with letters, e-mails and phone calls. Other Andersen protests are being organized in Chicago and elsewhere.

Government blasted

The show of anger and pride comes with executives urging employees -- until now largely silent through Andersen's travails -- in internal company e-mails to express their rage about the indictment to their congressmen and the Justice Department.

The company also took out full-page advertisements in leading newspapers Wednesday, headlined "Why we're fighting back." It called the government's action "a tragically wrong indictment of our whole firm" and "a political broadside rather than a focus on the facts."

Andersen officials insisted the employees' efforts are not so much directed from above as tapping into frustrations shared throughout the 89-year-old firm, whose name has crumbled almost overnight as a result of its role as auditor for bankrupt Enron Corp.

"This is less the firm's strategy than a grass-roots expression of innocent people's feelings about being unfairly tarred by the actions of a few," said spokesman Patrick Dorton.

Marc Andersen, a partner in Andersen's Vienna, Va., office who is organizing the Capitol rally, agreed.

"Our emphasis is on putting a face and a name and a voice on Andersen," he said.

"What happened in Houston is not representative of who we are as a firm and we're not going to stand for it," he said.

Accounting industry experts voiced doubts about whether the campaign can work, particularly with the exodus of blue-chip clients growing daily. BB&T Corp., one of the nation's largest consumer banks, defected Thursday, a day after Houston energy company Dynegy Corp. did so. Both replaced Andersen with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

'The P.R. game'

Edward Ketz, associate professor of accounting at Pennsylvania State University, called it "a last desperate effort in the P.R. game" to get Congress to step in and keep Andersen from going out of business.

"I think the story of Enron has resonated basically to the bone for so many Americans that they want justice done," Ketz said. "Rightly or wrongly they are looking at Andersen in part for that justice because Andersen obviously had an audit failure here in approving things that shouldn't have been done."

University of Chicago accounting professor Roman Weil said Andersen's real challenge is to persuade clients to stick with it while the current situation plays out. "I have no idea how they'll do that," he said.

Employees are worried, too.

Katherine Dorn, a campus recruiter who works at Andersen's Chicago headquarters along with her fiance, said she feels not only angry and stunned by the speed of Andersen's unraveling, but afraid amid increasing talk of layoffs and collapse.

"There is a general feeling of shock and disbelief among so many of the employees who had nothing to do directly with the Enron audit or destruction of documents," said Dorn, 24, who has joined in the petition-signing and letter-writing campaign. "Every single person at this firm has a story to tell about how this has absolutely, if not destroyed their personal circumstances, altered them."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who already has gone to bat for Enron workers in their efforts to get severance pay, is now taking up the Andersen cause. After meeting with Andersen employees, Jackson said he would protest the indictment to the Justice Department and urged President Bush to protect Andersen workers if they lose their jobs.

"The Department of Justice has dealt with this manner arbitrarily and capriciously, rather than judiciously, and with this rush to judgment they are going to put thousands of people out of work," Jackson said.

"Those who shredded paper, they should be dealt with by the full weight of the law. I'm concerned about the lower-level employees," he said. "Their boat is capsizing and they have no more oars with which to row."

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