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Andersen ... wrong call
High Court is so obsessed with legal-ese that they miss the point. But lucky the jury didn't.
May 31, 2005: 2:21 PM EDT

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Dear Supreme Court Justices,

I respectfully disagree with your Andersen decision. Whatever the jury was told or instructed the fact remains ... the accounting firm the firm, mind you obstructed justice. The jury got that ... and that was good.

Agreed, I'm no lawyer and my feeble excuse for a brain couldn't last one minute with any of you in a mental sparring match. But in this case you're playing semantics and not engaging in any sort of common sense.

Okay, I've read the decision and know it all hangs on how you read this law:

"Whoever knowingly uses intimidation or physical force, threatens, or corruptly persuades another person, or attempts to do so, or engages in misleading conduct toward another person, with intent to ... cause or induce any person to ... withhold testimony, or withhold a record, document, or other object, from an official proceeding [or] alter, destroy, mutilate, or conceal an object with intent to impair the object's integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both."

The crux of the biscuit, to quote Frank Zappa, is "knowingly ... corruptly persuades." You think the jury wasn't told to think enough about "knowingly" and "corruptly" before issuing its verdict. All the jury had to think about was if Andersen actually "persuade(d)" its employees to shred Enron-related documents. And that's a gimme.

You know, there are reasons the legal profession is the butt of so many jokes. Playing word games to the point of overlooking the reality of the situation, like you are doing here, is one of those reasons.

Andersen got wind of an impending government investigation into Enron's accounts. As Enron's accountant, it was a no-brainer that the Feds would be checking out Andersen's paperwork. Suddenly an in-house lawyer starts reminding personnel about the firm's document retention policy (an ironic label, since the policy is to get rid of all the paperwork except the finished product). And then the now-legendary shredding began.

A federal prosecutor likened the accounting firm's actions to wiping up at a crime scene before the cops could get the yellow tape up. I say it was more like a drug dealer running to the toilet when they hear the cops pounding the door. Either description fits what is clearly obvious.

Obvious enough to the jury at least. And their decision effectively put Andersen out of the accounting business.

At the time, and still today, there are those who argue Andersen's actions in the Enron case were those of a few bad apples and that burning the entire orchard was overkill.

That could be true if Enron was just one case. But then there was Waste Management ... and Sunbeam ... heck if you want to you can go all the way back to American Continental Corp. and its subsidiaries ... one of which included a Charles Keating failed savings and loan. There was a definite track record for the firm.

It is said actions speak louder than words. That's the case here. A shame our country's highest court can't recognize it.


Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNN/Money and appears weekends on CNN's "In the Money." He can be emailed at  Top of page


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