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Corporate perp walks and conference pep talks

D. Murali

LIKE the proverbial bad coin, here comes that date again, to poke at forgotten memories and restore faded visuals, and stir the embers of gloom. September 11 or 9/11 has got etched into history as much as B.C. and A.D. And as in a funeral service when it would be difficult not to think of the perpetrators and focus only on the victim, it would be tough not to do a replay of events that happened two years ago without some mention or the other about the key players in the plot.

Sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11, accountants have been coming under the wrath of people as perpetrators of a different crime — of cooking books. Giant companies that stood like WTC collapsed when promoters and colluding auditors rammed their giga-sized greed a bit too hard. A religious site observed: "In New York there are now psychic psychiatrists, psychic bookies and psychic accountants." Why? Because "everybody feels ever more superstitious. They are looking for reassurance from people they see as spiritual."

None has been generous enough to be kind to erring accountants — who seemed as insensitive as vultures are to dying soldiers — and The Observer noted: "Ironically, less than a year after the massive danger from without, we were confronted with an even greater enemy from within: Golden Calf capitalism."

Media and management schools love such grand problems. So much so that a Web site offers a course for CPE credit, titled "Enron: The Accounting Profession's 9-11?" A four-hour `Interactive Self-Study' for `accounting & auditing' students and priced at $59.95. The course topics make an interesting reading: Enron: a story of greed and stupidity; Ignoring the red flags; Andersen's role in the Enron failure; Corporate governance considerations; The spread of Enronitis; and Reform proposals.

Competitive Enterprise Institute carried an article in 2002: "One Year After: Did September 11 Really Change The Tech World?" by James L. Gattuso. It had a disturbing paragraph: "Instead of Al Qaeda operatives, the prisoners lately have been accountants and CEOs taking their orange-jumpsuited perp walks."

And if you are keen to know what perp walk means, here is WordSpy to the rescue: Perp is a police slang term, "short for perpetrator", explains the site. "In certain jurisdictions, once you've processed a perp, the next step is to parade him or her before the waiting media hordes. The size of the horde depends on the notoriety of the perp or the perp's crime. This is called the perp walk."

But "corporate perp walk" is a new addition to the language, after some of the perps responsible for the recent spate of corporate malfeasance got arrested. "This one's very new, with the earliest citation being not quite two weeks young," citing as the `earliest citation' from Rocky Mountain News, dated July 25, 2002: "The day started like every day other day — this time, with the founder of Adelphia doing the corporate perp walk, arrested for treating the company like — and I quote — `a personal piggy bank.'"

Quite queerly, as a compliment for a right practice in the wrong place, a Sears lecture titled "In the Wake of 9/11: Will Business Ethics Change?" Laura Nash of Harvard Business School observed: "If it weren't for good accounting practices, it would not have been possible to track down the financial network of the terrorists." A questioner complained at the end of the lecture: "Right after 9/11, Boston drivers seemed to be more polite. Now, we're seeing these motorists returning to their usual, aggressive driving habits."

You wouldn't be able to have such a grouse with our accountants. The upcoming regional conference in Bangalore would have its 1400 plus participants think about "professional development in the digital era" rather than "restoring trust in the profession" or "how not to return to old ways". Apart from lectures on how to be a global CA, and the opportunities in BPO, and the usual fare on company law, taxation, and IT, there would be `excitement to the max!' ("It's entertainment time. Time to close your books," urges the newsletter.) Also, a whole session of health and humour on the first day, followed by a post-breakfast spiritual session on the second, and a grand wind up with a valedictory address by S.Gurumurthy.

Perhaps, like everybody else, accountants too are looking for reassurance from people they see as spiritual.

(hindubusinessline@hotmail.com)

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