The WorldCom fraud was the largest in U.S. history, surpassing even that of Enron. Beginning modestly during mid-year 1999 and continuing at an accelerated pace through May 2002, the company—under the direction of Bernie Ebbers, the CEO; Scott Sullivan, the CFO; David Myers, the controller; and Buford Yates, the director of accounting—“cooked the books” to the tune of about $11 billion of misstated earnings. Investors collectively lost $30 billion as a result of the fraud.
The fraud was accomplished primarily in two ways:
During 2002, Cynthia Cooper, the vice president of internal auditing, responded to a tip about improper accounting by having her team do an exhaustive hunt for the improperly recorded line costs that were also known as “prepaid capacity.” That name was designed to mask the true nature of the costs and treat them as capitalizable costs rather than as operating expenses. The team worked tirelessly, often at night and secretly, to investigate and reveal $3.8 billion worth of fraud.
Soon thereafter, Cooper notified the company’s audit committee and board of directors of the fraud. The initial response was not to take action, but to look for explanations from Sullivan. Over time, Cooper realized that she needed to be persistent and not give in to pressure that Sullivan was putting on her to back off. Cooper even approached KPMG, the auditors that had replaced Arthur Andersen, to support her in the matter. Ultimately, Sullivan was dismissed, Myers resigned, Andersen withdrew its audit opinion for 2001, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began an investigation into the fraud on June 26, 2002.
In an interview with David Katz and Julia Homer for CFO Magazine on February 1, 2008, Cynthia Cooper was asked about her whistleblower role in the WorldCom fraud. When asked when she first suspected something was amiss, Cooper said: “It was a process. My feelings changed from curiosity to discomfort to suspicion based on some of the accounting entries my team and I had identified, and also on the odd reactions I was getting from some of the finance executives.”1
Cooper did exactly what is expected of a good auditor. She approached the investigation of line-cost accounting with a healthy dose of skepticism and maintained her integrity throughout, even as Sullivan was trying to bully her into dropping the investigation.
When asked whether there was anything about the culture of WorldCom that contributed to the scandal, Cooper laid blame on Bernie Ebbers for his risk-taking approach that led to loading up the company with $40 billion in debt to fund one acquisition after another. He followed the same reckless strategy with his own investments, taking out loans and using his WorldCom stock as collateral. Cooper believed that Ebbers’s personal decisions then affected his business decisions; he ultimately saw his net worth disappear, and he was left owing WorldCom some $400 million for loans approved by the board.
Betty Vinson, the company’s former director of corporate reporting, was one of five former WorldCom executives who pleaded guilty to fraud. At the trial of Ebbers, Vinson said she was told to make improper accounting entries because Ebbers did not want to disappoint Wall Street. “I felt like if I didn’t make the entries, I wouldn’t be working there,” Vinson testified. She said that she even drafted a resignation letter in 2000, but ultimately she stayed with the company. It was clear she felt uneasy with the accounting at WorldCom.
Vinson said that she took her concerns to Sullivan, who told her that Ebbers did not want to lower Wall Street expectations. Asked how she chose which accounts to alter, Vinson testified, “I just really pulled some out of the air. I used some spreadsheets.”2
Her lawyer urged the judge to sentence Vinson to probation, citing the pressure placed on her by Ebbers and Sullivan. “She expressed her concern about what she was being directed to do to upper management, and to Sullivan and Ebbers, who assured her and lulled her into believing that all was well,” he said.
On December 6, 2002 the SEC reached an agreement with Betty Vinson about her role in the WorldCom fraud and suspended her from appearing or practicing before the Commission as an accountant. In its Administrative Proceeding, the SEC alleged that: “At the direction of WorldCom senior management, Vinson and other WorldCom employees caused WorldCom to overstate materially its earnings in contravention of GAAP for at least seven successive fiscal quarters, from as early as October 2000 through April 2002.” The overstatement included improperly capitalized line costs to overstate pre-tax earnings by approximately $3.8 billion. The agreement went on to say: “Vinson knew, or was reckless in not knowing, that these entries were made without supporting documentation, were not in conformity with GAAP, were not disclosed to the investing public, and were designed to allow WorldCom to appear to meet Wall Street analysts' quarterly earnings estimates.”
1) The SEC action against Vinson was deemed "appropriate and in the public interest." How was the public interest affected by what Vinson did and WorldCom's actions broadly?
2) In a presentation at James Madison University in November 2013, Cynthia Cooper said, “You don’t have to be a bad person to make bad decisions.” Discuss what you think Cooper meant and how it relates to our discussion of ethical and moral development in the chapter.
(1): The public interest is affected by what Vinson did because the public at large depends and relies on the financial information that a company releases in its quarterly reports and annual reports. A company has got many stakeholders like investors, shareholders etc. who rely on the financial statements of the company to determine its financial health. Vinson’s action led the public, shareholders, and investors etc. to falsely believe that the company was growing and was profitable when in reality it was not so the case. Hence the trust factor was broken and the interest of the public was diluted when false financial numbers were produced. Barring Vinson and suspending Vinson from practicing before the Commission as an accountant will ensure that Vinson and accountants like Vincent are deterred and not allowed to falsify the financial numbers and mislead people who rely on them.
(2): I think that Cooper meant that not all bad decisions are made by a bad person and that sometimes good people and people with strong moral and ethical values also end up making bad decisions due to the pressure they face from the situations at hand and from their superiors in the organization. This directly relates to the discussion of ethical and moral development. Mistakes can be made by good people and this can sometimes spur them to make bad decisions as they are blinded by their lack of judgement and erroneous interpretation of the situation. In such cases people tend to lose sight of the ramifications of their actions and hence deviate from their moral and ethical standard.
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