The U.S. criminal charges filed Thursday against Arthur Andersen, the huge accounting firm that audited Enron's books, raises the possibility that Anderson, like Enron, could be forced into bankruptcy.
Arthur Andersen was indicted for obstruction of justice. Employees at the firm's Houston office allegedly systematically destroyed documents the government wanted as part of its investigation into the collapse of the energy trading company Enron at the end of the year.
Andersen, based in Chicago, is a huge global firm that employs 65,000 professionals. Founded early in the 20th century, Andersen is one of what were called the big six accounting firms.
Tony Tinker, an accounting professor at Baruch College in New York, believes Anderson allegedly destroyed thousands of documents because they would have shown it was complicit in accounting fraud. Mr. Tinker says Anderson and the other big accounting firms have gotten too close to their clients and routinely endorse questionable accounting procedures. "The kinds of practices found at Andersen are fairly pervasive. And one can see that if one is in the educational process by the kinds of people they're increasingly seeking to recruit," he says. "Which is basically people auditors especially who are accounting lite. They're fast-moving, fast-talking MBA's who have little accounting training and therefore ideal material for putting in place in audit situations where keeping clients happy are essential to keeping other products and services moving.
In recent weeks several well-known companies have dropped Andersen and moved to other accounting firms. Now the U.S. government is proscribed from dealing with Anderson because of the criminal indictment. David Ruder is a former government securities regulator. "There are bad boy provisions [in U.S. law] that disqualify you from certifying accounting statement if you have certain kind of activities on your record," he says.
Dawn Driscoll is the author of the book "Ethics Matter." She believes that the indictment of Andersen could undermine public confidence in accounting firms. She points out that Andersen is a decentralized operation and that it may be that just the Houston office was breaking the law and endorsing what is called creative accounting. "Arthur Andersen, of course, is a partnership made up of individuals. And as you and I have heard all the terrible things that happened in Houston in connection with Enron, I have also heard some positively heart warming stories about Arthur Andersen partners on other accounts," she says. "That have gone directly to the audit committee and blown the whistle on what the company was doing."
No matter whether Andersen survives or not, accounting professor Tony Tinker believes far-reaching reform of the accounting industry is needed. He says despite the Enron scandal, reform will be slow in coming. "One inch at a time is my recommendation. And not looking for quick fixes," he says. "It's going to require sustained effort. It requires not only therefore dealing with the conflicts of interest in accounting, we have to deal with the conflicts of interest in other institutions that were party to the Enron breakdown."
Enron collapsed because it hid its losses and instead pretended that the company was profitable. The questionable transactions that misled investors were endorsed Enron's accountant, Arthur Andersen, and by its lawyers and bankers. The Enron collapse was the largest in U.S. corporate history.