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Saturday, 30 March, 2002, 12:46 GMT
Andersen's angry accountants
Andersen employees protesting
Andersen workers claim they are being victimised
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By Mark Gregory
BBC International Business Correspondent
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Imagine the scene: 2,000 angry accountants gathered on the steps to the US Senate, all wearing orange sweat shirts with the word Andersen emblazoned on the chest.

Orange is the Arthur Andersen corporate colour.
Andersen employees protesting
Their anger is directed towards the US Justice Department
There was clapping and cheering and a lot of speeches.

It was a faintly disturbing sight that offended one's sense of the natural order of things; I didn't know accountants were capable of being so animated.

One man took the microphone and started a chant: "I'll say Arthur," he told the crowd, "You say Andersen". And off they went: "Arthur ... Andersen, Arthur ... Andersen, Arthur ...Andersen," they shouted.

Animated accountants

Many people held up placards with slogans such as "We are victims too" and "85,000 families destroyed by the US Justice Department."

The figure refers to the number of Andersen employees worldwide. The US Justice Department is seen as the villain because it launched criminal action that could destroy the firm.


Surely it must be possible to punish a few wrongdoers without destroying the entire organisation, I was told

There was much talk of the Andersen family. The image portrayed was that of a close community bound by deep ties of loyalty, dedication and a hallowed commitment to serving clients.

One lady almost broke down in tears as she spoke of how Andersen had supported her after her brother had been killed in the horror of 11 September.

I chatted with an American reporter covering the event, he said: "Jesus Christ, it's like dealing with the moonies - they're a cult".

I knew what he meant, but the comment was unfair. There was no doubting the sincerity of the shock and fury over the cataclysm that threatens to wipe out the most famous name in accounting.

Innocent victims?

I was asked over and over again: Why should so many thousands of people suffer for the mistakes of just a few people in Andersen's Houston office?

It was pointed out that less than 1% of Andersen staff had any dealings with Enron.

Surely it must be possible to punish a few wrongdoers without destroying the entire organisation, I was told.

Yet it struck me that this was a group of people in a state of denial. Andersen is, after all, accused of destroying tons of vital documents relating to Enron's bankruptcy.

It is no defence for an airline to claim that 99% of its flights don't crash.


The likelihood of it [Andersen] going bust must have seemed about on a par with the risk of being hit by a meteorite while out shopping.

By the same token, accountants can't really get away with claiming their actions contributed to the collapse of just one, tiny weeny $100bn company - an event that just happened to be the biggest insolvency in history.

But there was more than just anger at the Andersen demonstration.

There was also a deep sense of bewilderment. And you can see why. Accountants are cautious, careful people in the main.

That is why they opt to become accountants, not trapeze artists or stunt pilots.

The company Andersen people chose to work for is one of the most prestigious in the business, it has been around for almost a century.

The likelihood of it going bust must have seemed about on a par with the risk of being hit by a meteorite while out shopping. But that one in a billion chance may well happen.

I was reminded of my very first reporting assignment for local radio. I went to interview a man whose garden had been damaged by a large lump of blue ice falling out of the sky.

It probably came from an aircraft toilet. There were no significant consequences, but that man's view of what makes the world go around had been shaken for ever.

Hidden malaise?

Andersen staff must feel much the same way.

But many of the difficulties must have come from within.

In addition to Enron, Andersen was also the auditor for a number of other companies involved in rows about books that were allegedly cooked.

So were the problems caused by a few individuals who ran off the rails, or were they the result of some previously hidden malaise in Arthur Andersen's corporate culture? No doubt we will soon find out.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Business
Andersen 'close to naming new chief'
27 Mar 02 | Business
Andersen chief steps down
20 Mar 02 | Business
Andersen pleads not guilty
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