Ex-Andersen employees feel vindicated

Yet Supreme Court ruling is bittersweet victory now that firm is all but gone

June 01, 2005|By Ameet Sachdev, Greg Burns and Andrew Countryman | Ameet Sachdev, Greg Burns and Andrew Countryman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Jim Cunha's phone started ringing long before he left for work yesterday, as his former colleagues at the Andersen accounting firm called him to give him the good news.

For Cunha, a former managing partner of Andersen's office in Columbus, Ohio, the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the firm's conviction was at long last vindication for what he calls "a business lynching" by the federal government.

"In a sense, this just reaffirms what you knew all along," said Cunha, now a business consultant in Northern California. "It was a fabulous organization with fabulous people."

At the same time, for Cunha and thousands of other former Andersen partners and employees, the high court's decision is a bittersweet victory. It has been more than three years since the firm collapsed, and not even a unanimous vote from nine justices will turn back the clock to Andersen's glory days when it was the pre-eminent accounting firm in the world.

"It's not like Andersen is going to open the doors tomorrow and have all of their clients back," said Mark Friedlander, who was director of communications at Andersen's Chicago headquarters. "It's a hollow victory."

For some former partners, the ruling is not that meaningful. The damage to the firm and its 85,000 worldwide employees can't be reversed.

"I'm happy the court overturned the conviction," said Steven B. Weinstein, who started Altair Advisers LLC, a Chicago investment consulting firm, in 2002 with 11 Andersen co-workers. "It certainly helps to clear the good name of thousands of innocent people who lost their jobs. At the same, I consider myself fortunate and am not looking back."

Many postings on a Web site for Andersen alumni echoed Weinstein's sentiments, said Jonathan Goldsmith, president of AndersenAlumni.net. He said the site received about 100 comments on the Supreme Court decision, one of its busiest days since the site was erected in 2002.

Still, some Andersen loyalists say yesterday's decision could be the impetus to start resurrecting the firm. Greg Conlon, who retired in 1991 after 33 years with Andersen, has had conversations with several alumni and plans to meet with the four managing partners who have remained to wind down Andersen's business affairs.

The firm has fewer than 200 employees, who operate a training center and tend to the more than 100 pending civil suits against Andersen and its partners that seek billions of dollars. The reversal of the conviction would boost Andersen's defense in those cases, legal experts said.

"I know it's a long shot, but I know how great the firm is and was and I see no reason why it shouldn't be again," Conlon said.

While Andersen alumni welcomed the ruling, its effect on the government's pursuit of corporate fraud is likely to be muted. As Charles M. Elson, director of the Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware put it: "This was one very narrow aspect of the whole thing."

The decision takes some of the risk out of handling sensitive documents, legal experts say. But far from opening the door to indiscriminate shredding, it underscores the importance of observing document retention policies that most companies already have adopted.

"It's not open season on destroying relevant documents," said Douglas G. Baird, professor at the University of Chicago's law school. "You have to have the requisite level of intent to commit a crime."

Under the precedent set by the Andersen conviction, even an innocent attempt to clean up files could have been interpreted as a criminal act. By making it clear that only such measures taken with criminal intent can violate the law, the Supreme Court has provided more specific guidance.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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