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Tuesday, 29 January, 2002, 17:10 GMT
Andersen on the defensive
A House committee investigates Andersen
Andersen faces a series of probes into its role
Andersen, the accounting giant under fire for its involvement with the collapse of energy firm Enron, has made a public appeal for understanding in the hope of avoiding drastic censure.

People in our firm made serious errors in judgment in destroying documents... It was wrong. There's no other word for it

Joseph Berardino
Joseph Berardino, Andersen's chief executive, met the media and issued the company's first direct comment on Enron since its Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December.

He admitted that some customers had left Andersen, but remained confident the company could weather the storm.

Congressional hearings recently opened into the Enron failure, and Andersen's role in it, and more are expected in the coming months.

A number of private cases are also under way, as well as investigations on the part of regulators and law-enforcement authorities.

Some have speculated that Andersen, which gave its approval to Enron's falsified accounts, could be punished so severely that it might fold.

We will survive

Mr Berardino vowed that the firm would survive.

Andersen chief Joseph Berardino
Mr Berardino blames a few individuals for the failure

"People who know us well continue to hire us and stand by us," he said.

But he acknowledged that "people in our firm made serious errors in judgment in destroying documents."

"What was done was not in keeping with the values and heritage of this firm.

"It was wrong. There's no other word for it."

Damien Wild, Editor of Accountancy Age, told BBC World Business Report that if the company was found culpable, then it could face a bottomless pit if people started to sue it.

Looking for culprits

Mr Berardino said that the firm was in the throes of an internal review.

"We are in the final stages of finishing that review," he said.

"We started a few weeks ago and I'd say it's a matter of days before we get all the facts and we'll be very forthcoming."

Internal investigations should produce a culprit or culprits, Mr Berardino promised.

"We are going to hold people accountable. And we will make it clear that this behaviour will not be tolerated."

Firms will have to look at the way they conduct their business.

"These companies will have to go back to basics and become more forensic in the way they go about doing audits," Michael Laffererty of the International Accounting Bulletin told World Business Report.

"You need to have people doing audits who have instincts as well as the ability to tick and bash, " he added.

Called to account

Since Enron's bankruptcy last year, Andersen has come under intense scrutiny.

Its critics allege that the auditors sent by Andersen to check out Enron turned a blind eye to irregularities at the energy giant, because of the revenues the accountants earned from spin-off services such as consulting.

They argue that all the other "Big Five" accounting firms - of which Andersen is the smallest - are prone to conflicts of interest between audit and business service functions, and that the law should be altered to tackle them.

Andersen, which has been involved in a string of high-profile accounting scandals, has come in for more criticism than most of its peers, and may eventually be subject to a judicial penalty.

For its part, Andersen argues that any failings in its relationship with Enron were the fault of a few individuals in its Houston office, and not the result of any structural problems in the firm as a whole.

Damien Wild, Editor Accountancy Age
"Not many people understand what accountants do."
Michael Lafferty, International Accounting Bulletin
"The auditing game is about adding credibility to financial statements."
See also:

28 Jan 02 | Business
Enron sued by staff
28 Jan 02 | Business
Cheney resists Enron probe
28 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Labour challenged over Enron links
14 Jan 02 | Business
Audit giants called to account
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