Over the past decade, there have been several major accounting scandals in the U.S. Not only have these scandals resulted in billions of dollars of lost income to investors, shareholders, bondholders, suppliers and government, they have cost countless people their jobs and retirement savings and have caused several corporations to shut their doors.
The occurrence of such scandals underscores the fact that as business practices, executive incentives and accounting policies become more complex, the opportunity for both accidental and intentional financial misstatement becomes greater. Adaptive standards and highly-trained accounting professionals, then, are crucial to preventing future scandals.
Here’s a look at three of the biggest accounting scandals in recent history.
Established in 1985, Enron was one of the world’s largest traders of natural gas. As the company expanded, Enron aggressively assumed new debt. To conceal these growing obligations, Enron used special purpose entities, or variable interest entities, to keep the debts off their balance sheet. They also used accounting gimmicks to inflate their profits by more than $1 billion.
Arthur Andersen, one of the largest public accounting firms in the world at the time, audited the books for Enron. After allegedly assisting in the hiding of debts and inflation of profits, including shredding documents related to its audit of Enron, Arthur Andersen was found guilty of obstructing justice and was forced to close its doors.
After a formal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2001, Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off 4000 employees.
WorldCom was founded in 1983 and quickly became the second largest long distance phone company in the United States. From 1999 to 2002, WorldCom committed major accounting fraud in preparing their balance sheet.
By inflating their revenues and capitalizing rather than expensing their line costs, they falsely increased the price of WorldCom’s stock. CEO Bernie Ebbers was highly involved in the scandal and convinced the board of directors to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars in personal loans from the company, which ultimately cost investors $180 million.
In June 2002, WorldCom’s internal auditors discovered $3.8 billion in fraudulent accounting entries. A formal investigation determined that WorldCom’s assets were actually inflated by $11 billion. In 2002, WorldCom filed for the largest Chapter 11 bankruptcy in U.S. history.
After emerging from bankruptcy in 2004 with $5.7 billion in debt, WorldCom is still trying to pay its creditors. In 2005, WorldCom’s ex-CEO Bernard Ebbers was convicted of fraud, conspiracy and filing false documents with regulators. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
As mastermind of the first global Ponzi scheme in history, Bernie Madoff was responsible for an estimated $50 billion loss in personal and institutional wealth. Madoff attracted potential investors with promises of high returns, which he paid out with new investor’s money rather than actual profits. His Ponzi scheme was successful until tough economic times caused investors to withdraw funds, draining his cash reserves.
After being turned in by his two sons in December 2008, Madoff plead guilty to eleven charges, including fraud, international money laundering and lying to federal securities regulators. In June 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
Madoff’s accountant, David Friehling, also plead guilty to charges of securities fraud, investment adviser fraud and three counts of obstructing tax law administration. He is free on $2.5 million bond and is cooperating with prosecutors while awaiting sentencing.