The moral fall guys

The moral fall guys

I blame the accountant. That, in a nutshell, will be Ken Lay’s defence when he appears in a Houston courthouse at the end of this month.

The comment is no idle insult. In seeking to hold his former CFO Andy Fastow
responsible for the collapse of Enron, the energy giant he once chaired, Lay
hopes to save himself from reputational ruin and a lengthy spell in prison.

Many who lost their life savings will see a conviction as justice. But the
success of a defence, which argues that a CFO can orchestrate a fraud on a
previously unimaginable scale under the nose of his CEO and chairman will, to
say the least, do accountants’ reputations no good at all.

Worryingly, all this blame-the-accountant rhetoric is no isolated example.
It’s not just the prelude to the Enron trial that has seen all-comers take
swings at accountants in recent weeks. Newspapers over the festive period seemed
to carry little else but tales targeting accountants as the cause of society’s
deterioration into moral bankruptcy.

For instance, last week The Daily Telegraph warned of the danger of
administrators selling off the collections of smaller museums and galleries.
‘You can imagine some council accountant deciding that cleaning the place out
with a boot sale would raise enough to keep the public library open on Mondays,’
it snapped.

Days earlier, the same paper had reminded us that ‘the test of the quality of
a piece of music is not how much an accountant wants to spend on it’. I’m glad
they cleared that one up. Accountants’ approval was always my yardstick.

Like many people, I blame The Guardian. It used a year-end round-up of the
London restaurant scene to point out that last year 133 – including the rather
good Osia, Putney Bridge and East@West – failed to satisfy ‘the accountant’s
rule’.

Presumably that’s the same Micawberish rule that applies to all businesses,
but for the purposes of lazy parallels requires corporate success to be a
testament to the spirit of entrepreneurship and corporate failure the result of
a one-dimensional number-cruncher wielding a scalpel. Plus ça change.

Damian Wild is group editor in chief of Accountancy Age

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