A Moment of Principle

Published: April 9, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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The day Cynthia Cooper’s life changed she was sitting in a hair salon wrapped in tin-foil when she received an angry call from her boss, WorldCom’s Chief Financial Officer Scott Sullivan

As head of internal audit for the telecom giant, Cooper had asked the company’s external auditor, Arthur Andersen about a questionable accounting maneuver.  Sullivan was incensed that she was pursuing the issue much less challenging the reputable Andersen.  Far from being intimated, Cooper and her team of 18 internal auditors began working nights and weekends to uncover what would eventually grow to $11 billion in fraud.

The results of her actions ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of both Sullivan and CEO Bernard Ebbers.  It also led TIME Magazine to choose Cooper along with the FBI’s Coleen Rowley and Enron’s Sherron Watkins as Time’s 2002 Persons of the Year.

In her book, “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower,” she details what has become a defining moment of principle.

Tell us about the book.

“I tried to tell the WorldCom story from a human perspective that looks beyond the accounts and numbers.  The book takes readers behind the scenes by placing them in the meetings and buildings and settings where the fraud occurred. It also allows readers to experience the rise and fall of WorldCom and think about what decisions they may have made along the way.

“I wrote the book to share my experiences and some of the lessons learned not only with professionals but with the next generation.”

Any regrets about coming forward?

“My team and I found ourselves standing at a crossroads and we did what we believed was right. I would take the same path again, but of course that doesn’t mean there will be no cost to other innocent people, your family and yourself. There is often a price to pay and sometimes it can be severe.

“I write about some of the things that happened not only to me but other members of my audit team. At times, we felt isolated. Some people were angry with me for reporting the fraud. However, most employees, even those who lost their jobs or large portions of their savings, were supportive.”

 What was the biggest obstacle you faced?

“One of the biggest obstacles was working through various roadblocks that I would later learn were intentional efforts to prevent me from identifying the fraud. A number of the employees who participated in the fraud attempted to mislead my team and me.

“The WorldCom fraud involved collusion at the highest levels of the company, including the CFO to whom I reported administratively. Frauds involving collusion are often the most difficult to detect. There were times when I went back and forth in my mind questioning whether I was missing something or over-reacting. No one wants to believe that their boss or peers would perpetrate a fraud and I didn’t want to falsely accuse or disparage anyone, so we had to get it right. “

What affected you and your family most?

“I think it was the fact that our lives were turned upside down so quickly. When something like this happens, you realize how fragile life can be. Overnight, I went from a quiet life with my husband and daughters to being thrown into the public spotlight.

“Many of my staff also faced negative consequences. I think we felt many emotions from anxiety and heartbreak to disbelief. My team and I watched as thousands of our co-workers were laid off. Shareholders lost all or portions of their retirement. Many Mississippians had invested heavily in WorldCom stock. Executives we had worked with for years, trusted and respected were lead off in handcuffs on the national news.”

What kept you going when things got difficult?

“My faith, family and friends helped me stay grounded and navigate the storm. At the time we identified the fraud, my oldest daughter was twelve and my youngest was ten months old. My husband is a stay-at-home dad and was a rock of support and an anchor for our family.

“I can remember asking my father as a young girl when a friend of the family became ill, why bad things happened to people. ‘We all face adversity,’ he said, ‘some of us will have to walk through doors of difficulty others won’t, but we all have our doors.’ In the end, the trials of life can make us stronger, and we can use our own experiences in a positive way to help other people who may find themselves in similar situations.”

In Friday’s post, Cooper discusses whether companies are any better, ethically, post-WorldCom, and how we teach the next generation of business leaders?


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