Will the accountants be held accountable?

March 22, 2002|By Molly Ivins

AUSTIN - Gee, what a shame about Arthur Andersen. And it's going to make such a big mess, too.

But wouldn't you like to hear the arguments being made in defense of Andersen put forward in a Texas courtroom, just to see what would happen?

"Your honor, members of the jury, it is true that my client Arthur Dwayne Andersen (it's practically mandatory to have the middle name Dwayne if you're going to prison in Texas) is guilty of theft by malpractice in this Enron deal. He cut a few corners and bent a few rules. And then he burned up all the office records to cover it up.

"On the other hand, your honor, my client is the sole support of five children, and his wife is diabetic and asthmatic. So that's six lives of innocent people that will be ruined if we send this man to prison, not to mention that it will cost the taxpayers $20,000 a year to keep him there, plus the $15.25 a week to keep each of those kids on welfare as long as he's inside. (And let me add, your honor, that it makes perfect sense to spend $20,000 a year to keep a man in prison while we spend exactly $15.25 a week to give a child a fair start in life).

"Now it's true ol' Arthur Dwayne here has a couple of priors. But that Waste Management thing is real old news. And the Colonial Realty problem, the Sunbeam Corp. disaster and the truly unfortunate affair of the Baptist Foundation were just temporary aberrations. My client deserves another chance, your honor. Arthur Dwayne has learned his lesson this time and will never, ever steal again, and besides, he's real sorry now. I ask for a suspended sentence on grounds of the terrible harm this will do to all of Arthur Dwayne's extended family."

Think it will fly? I am the last person to argue that one more injustice will somehow make sense out of a "justice system" that is so often perverse. But I live in a state that did not even think Andrea Yates' slightly noticeable insanity worth consideration. The state of Texas thought it necessary to "make an example" out of her, which is bound to have a deterrent effect on all the other hopeless psychotics.

Ms. Yates' life sentence was widely reported as "an act of mercy." If life in a Texas pen is merciful, Jesse Helms is a commie. For a truly unusual example of reason and mercy in action, check out what the state of Texas does to its mentally ill prisoners - makes a snake pit look like paradise.

I've got more people to feel sorry for than Arthur Dwayne. Especially the 27,000 people in danger of losing their jobs because someone else "made a mistake."

Looking for someone to blame? The Corporate Crime Reporter found this advice in a law review article:

"Corporate counsel must take every available opportunity to imbue company executives with the understanding that their documents will take on separate lives when they enter the treadmill of litigation. ... Ask executives and employees to imagine all their documents in the hands of a zealous regulator or on the front page of The New York Times. ... Each company should have a system of determining the retention and destruction of documents. Obviously, once a subpoena has been issued, or is about to be issued, any existing document destruction policies should be brought to an immediate halt."

Except for that "about to be issued" part, Arthur Andersen did precisely that. The advice comes from Harvey L. Pitt, then a star defense lawyer for the accounting industry, now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Robert Bartley made a truly perverse argument in The Wall Street Journal about other cases in which professionals who have "made mistakes" - from pedophile priests to plagiarizing historians - do not appear to have paid much of a price.

He could have made a much stronger argument for Andersen by pointing out the innumerable cases in which other corporate crime has gotten a caress on the wrist. Instead, he chose to argue, "Businessmen may be ahead of the rest in accountability," one of the silliest sentences I have ever read. Followed in silliness by his observation, "As a society we seem increasingly incapable of sitting in judgment of each other."

If so, why are there 2 million Americans in prison? The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, 700 per 100,000 citizens. According to the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., the rate in Canada and European countries ranges from 80 to 121 per 100,000. To anyone but a Wall Street Journal editor, the obvious question would be, why do the rich get away with stealing millions while the poor go to prison for stealing TVs?

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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