Wielding Enron's Tale of Woe, Eichenwald Warns About Fraud
Kurt Alexander Eichenwald created his own beat at the New York Times covering corporate fraud, an assignment he thought would last three to six months. Twenty years and three best-selling books later, he’s still writing about insider trading, accounting scandals and corporate malfeasance.
He’s perhaps best known for his coverage of and book — “Conspiracy of Fools” — about the fall of Enron.
Using Enron as a cautionary tale for a packed audience of future accountants, Eichenwald, who left the Times in 2006, recounted the rise and fall of the company in his talk for the Lyceum Distinguished Speakers series last month. “Enron was the biggest corporate fraud of its time. They said Enron is a crime story, and it isn’t. It’s a mismanagement story,” he said.
What started as a gas pipeline company expanded into a wide variety of business arenas, including gas contracts, power distribution in Brazil, power generation in India, water trading and broadband trading, among others, he said.
“If Enron had stopped [with trading gas contracts] and focused on its business and recognized what it had become, the company would have been okay,” Eichenwald said. “What the company had become is a trading company being run by a bunch of pipeline guys.”
But despite the fact that the company was plagued with credit problems and a low credit rating, “Enron had such a wonderful reputation that people” — investors, analysts, the media — “stopped caring,” he noted. Even Enron began to believe it was infallible, he said, “because they have the cover of Fortune magazine, they have the front of the New York Times business section, they have the front page of the Wall Street Journal, they have Forbes, they have everybody saying how brilliant they are even when things were already starting to fall massively apart.”
Eichenwald warned students that Enron’s culture became so insular that when employees tried to raise red flags about shaky practices, the response was, “‘Well, you’re clearly not Enron material.’ When you say that enough times, people stop telling you what you don’t want to hear, and that’s what really happened at Enron,” he said. “The result of that was this company went into some of the stupidest business arrangements I have seen at any corporation in 25 years.”
Accountants, he said, may face tougher pressure than others in an organization. Referencing the parable about the emperor’s new clothes, he told the audience of future accountants that they’re not going to be merely team players. “You’re going to have to stand up and announce when evil in the company or whatever organization you’re dealing with are naked. Yours is not going to be an easy job.”
Through his career, he has met “scores of people who have been caught up in corporate frauds. I’ve met them in their homes, in their offices, and in their prison cells. Most of the time these are not evil people, they’re people who got blinded” by greed or, more likely, by fear of speaking up.
He acknowledged that overcoming fear and risking the loss of one’s job isn’t easy. But, he said, the alternative — going along with bad deeds — may be far worse in the end.
“You’ve got to know when the compromises start,” he said. “It’s hard to stop it, and eventually you can find yourself — a lot of people at Enron found themselves under the glaring light [being told], ‘Explain everything you did.’”
Eichenwald drove home the point that anyone and everyone is at risk for potentially criminal behavior.
“Every single one of you, right here, right now, if you don’t stop to think about what you’re doing when you’re doing it, could end up in the middle of a corporate fraud,” he said. “Your job is not to join them with your foot on the gas. Your job is you’re the brake, and if you’re doing your job, you’re going to make them mad.
“This is not an easy job,” he continued. “It is one where lots of people will hate you. Lots of people will go to the bar at night and curse you, and when they do, congratulations, because you’re doing your job.”