Andersen workers rally for embattled employer

Demonstrators gather at Capitol to protest indictment of firm

March 22, 2002|By Samuel Loewenberg | Samuel Loewenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Arrayed in bright orange T-shirts bearing the logo "I am Arthur Andersen," hundreds of the accounting firm's employees gathered on the steps of the Capitol yesterday in the chill overcast morning to protest the firm's indictment for its role in the Enron scandal.

The assembled employees - accountants, auditors, consultants and clerical workers - complained that the Department of Justice had disgraced their 85,000-person firm, though just a small fraction of Andersen employees worked on the Enron Corp. account.

"A few people did something, and we're all being punished for it," said Chrystal Furlong, a tax manager who has worked at Andersen's office in Vienna, Va., for six years.

Amid the chants, anger and testimonials at yesterday's rally, which began at 7 a.m. in front of the nearly empty Capitol, no one spoke openly about the likelihood of Andersen's demise and the prospect that the firm's 28,000 U.S. employees would lose their jobs. Rather than reflect on that possibility, those at the rally preferred to speak of their allegiance to the company.

"This shows that everyone is behind the company," said Brad Turner, a senior consultant. "People aren't jumping ship."

Similar rallies have taken place in Houston and Philadelphia; others are planned for Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Atlanta. Yesterday's gathering brought more than 500 Andersen employees and their families from the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia, and about 80 from Baltimore.

The rally's organizer, Marc Andersen, acknowledged that the firm paid for the T-shirts and the cost of busing in employees but said the impetus for the rally came from the employees.

Andersen, who is not related to the firm's founder, is a Virginia-based partner in charge of sales and marketing for the Southeastern United States.

In Washington, the mood at the early-morning gathering was one of defiance.

Carl Berquist, a company partner, led the crowd in a chant of "We are Arthur Andersen!"

"I haven't done something like this since college," Berquist told the audience.

To enhance the feel of a pep rally, the crowd held up pom-poms and signs that read, "Do I look like a criminal?" "We are victims too," and "Don't indict my Daddy."

Others spoke of their anger at the Justice Department, their anguish at explaining the indictment to their families and their loyalty to Andersen management.

Largely unmentioned was the specter of unemployment facing the assembled crowd.

"I'm not even considering getting a new job right now," said Furlong, the tax manager.

Cynthia Leonard, a mail assistant in the Vienna office who has been with the firm for about two years, said, "I have faith that God is going to show us the right way to go, and we're not going to lose our jobs."

Finding a new job would be easier for the firm's senior members, said Roque Santi, a tax partner. "But support staff will suffer. The jobs available to us are not like what they are going to have," Santi said.

Those at the rally made a point of distancing themselves from the Enron scandal. When one of the speakers asked who in the crowd had worked on the Enron account, nobody raised a hand.

"I'd never even heard of Enron until this happened," said Kelley Waller, an executive assistant at the firm's D.C. office.

Justice Department officials said they decided to seek an indictment of the firm for shredding thousands of documents linked to Enron. They also noted a pattern of misconduct at Andersen involving other accounts. The document shredding that led to the obstruction of justice charge was apparently orchestrated by partners at the firm and occurred in four cities. "There's not a lot of anger at the people in Houston because we don't know all of the details," said Jennifer Knepley, who works in marketing at Andersen's Baltimore office. But, she added, "I think there's disappointment also, because we've always felt we're a firm with a lot of integrity, so there's disappointment that one of our own could do that."

The rally ended a few minutes after 8 a.m. with a final cheer and a group picture on the Capitol steps. Then, as the sun finally peeked through the clouds, the scores of assembled tax managers, consultants and auditors pealed off their T-shirts to reveal business suits underneath, and, clutching their cell phones, went off to work.

Later in the day, in a marble-paneled hearing room, Harvey L. Pitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, met with the Senate Banking Committee to discuss what had gone wrong with the accounting profession and how best to fix it.

Pitt politely batted down Democratic proposals to increase federal oversight of auditors, contending that such regulations were heavy-handed. The most effective regulation, Pitt said, could come only from within the private sector.

Pitt, a lawyer who worked for the Big 5 accounting firms before heading the SEC, said he consulted with the firms' chief executive officers in formulating his proposals.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is chairman of the committee, acknowledged Pitt's concerns about the dangers of too much federal regulation. But in light of the Enron scandal, Sarbanes said, now might be the time for the government to draw some "bright lines" to protect against conflicts of interests for accounting firms.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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