Topic: Business & Commercial

Faint Whistle: Enron and Ethics

Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s former CEO, has finally been indicted. It would be refreshing, given the breath-taking accounting and financial flim-flam that went on under his leadership, for Skilling to accept responsibility, plead guilty like his partner-in-greed Jeffrey Fastow, and say that he’s sorry. Even if, to give Skilling the benefit of a doubt that doesn’t exist, he wasn’t personally corrupt during Enron’s spree of deception, fraud, and market manipulation, he was exactly as culpable as the captain of the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground, or as Robert E. Lee after the massacre known as Picket’s Charge: completely. The ethics of leadership demand responsibility, competence, prudence and accountability, none of which Skilling exhibited.

Is he guilty of breaking the law? One hopes so, but that will not make his actions more or less deplorable. Skilling’s lawyer has been quoted as saying that if following the advice of accountants and attorneys can make a CEO a criminal, then every corporate officer is at risk. Granted that lawyers are paid to say such things, but this comment deserves a special Bronx cheer. CEOs do not take orders from lawyers and accountants; it is the other way around. A CEO like Skillng says, “We have this idea that seems to allow us to hide our losses without violating any laws. Will it work?” The lawyer or the accountant may then say, “Well, it might, if you do this and this. But it’s pretty aggressive, and if the market turns sour, stock-holders are going to think they’ve been had.” “We’ll have sold the company by then, and they’ll all cash in. The bottom line is, you can fix this so it works, right?” This is how Al Capone “took the advice” of his Consigliari. Should the accountants have independently refused to assist Enron’s scheme? Yes, and that is why, in a nutshell, there’s no longer a firm called Arthur Anderson. Should the lawyers have taken steps to alert stock-holders? YesÂ…that’s why the SEC and the American Bar Association have developed new rules. But Skilling is responsible, for the decisions he makes, for the actions of executives under his supervision, for the quality of lawyers and accountants he hires. If “I was only following orders” doesn’t fly as an excuse, “I was only following advice” doesn’t have a prayer, and shouldn’t. So far, Enron Chairman Ken Lay has escaped indictment, but his ethical violations are identical to Skilling’s.

On a related note: The indictment of Skilling and the recent plea bargains of Andrew Fastow and his wife managed to start another round of media interviews with Sherron Watkins, who has carved a career out of being “the Enron Whistleblower.” Permit Ethics Scoreboard to take a little sheen off one of the three women named “Persons of the Year” by Time magazine a year ago.

Has anyone actually read her famous letter to Ken Lay? It is the lament of someone afraid of losing her job. “For those of us who didn’t get rich over the last few years, can we afford to stay?” she writes. The letter is notably devoid of any declaration that what Enron was doing was wrong, just that it wasn’t going to work much longer. “Dear Fuhrer,” a frightened Nazi general might have written in 1945. “I’m afraid that this aggressive anti-Jewish policy of ours is going to go hard on those of us who don’t have an escape plan to Argentina.” Whistle-blower? Yet Watkins, who also managed to unload her Enron stock before it tanked, has parlayed her own self-serving screed into lucrative book deals and a lecture tour. Well, it worked out all right for Sherron after all. Mission accomplished!

Have we come to the point when simply pointing out to superiors that there are problems in the workplace is regarded as evidence of unusual courage? This once was called “doing your job.” All rightÂ…not succumbing to a culture gone bad is laudable, but the praise heaped on Sherron Watkins is all out of proportion to her actions.

And let’s agree to reserve the term “Whistle-blower” for someone who actually prevents, or stops, or calls public attention to the conduct in question.

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