Accounting Ethics (and fraud)

Postings by Art Berkowitz on ethics and fraud. Most of them are serious, but sometimes we also need to have a little fun.

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Location: Orange County, California, United States

Art Berkowitz, C.P.A. is an author, speaker, and consultant from Orange County, California. He writes ethics, fraud, and accounting courses (CPE) for accountants and other financial professionals. Art has also written a weekly online column for The Wall Street Journal and a book on the Enron debacle. To order any of his self-study courses go to www.artberkowitz.com

Sunday, January 22, 2006

ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room

I just finished watching Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind's's movie, ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The authors and the movie deserve all the credit they are receiving. Apparently it has a good chance to win the Oscar for best documentary of the year.

The Culture of Enron

The movie focuses on the culture and influence inside Enron and how such a culture can subvert many normally ethical people. It also clearly delineates the key arguments against the "holy" triumvirate of Kenneth Lay, Jeffery Skilling, and Andy Fastow.

Bethany McLean, from Fortune Magazine, was one of the very first news reporters who questioned the accepted mantra on Wall Street that Enron's business plan was above reproach.

What makes this movie (and/or) book a must for accountants and others with review or regulatory responsibility is that it so clearly shows how easily this kind of abuse can take place...and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. I also liked the way the director presented the subject in a very entertaining way - describing the macho trips taken by key Enron executives and comparing them to the high risks taken inside the company. I watched the movie with a friend who initially had no interest in a movie on accounting, but she loved it. That's because Smartest Guys in the Room is really a human interest story told in a business setting.

California Electric Crisis

Special attention is given to the California electric crisis as the author and director have been able to obtain copies of the actual audiotapes used by Enron traders. It is both frightening and disheartening that these traders were able to disconnect the results of their actions - that millions of people would be without power - from their sole focus - making millions of dollars for Enron and themselves. So what if they had to create artificial shortages to do it. That was all part of the deregulation game.

There are some super bonus materials in the DVD including interviews with the director and authors.

Another Story that Must be Retold

The Enron story is an important one that needs to be told over and over and over again - from different perspectives and to different audiences. This is the one version that bridges the gap between the technical insider information version and the broad ethical perspective version of what and why it happened.

We should never forget,
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.
- Lord Acton (1887)

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