The Big Lie

In her gripping new book, former WorldCom internal auditor Cynthia Cooper tells how she blew away CFO Scott Sullivan's smokescreen.

Rather than going straight to Myers, who along with Sullivan had resisted Cooper’s earlier attempts to make sense of the company’s ensnarled accounting, she decided to find proof that her mounting skepticism was justified. Methodically, with the help of Gene Morse, a technology whiz she worked with, Cooper traced the amounts of prepaid-capacity entries as they branched swiftly in and out of other accounts for no apparent reason.

When all was said and done, she discovered, the effect was to move large, rounded dollar amounts — a tell-tale sign of fraud — from the income statement to the balance sheet. “It is a spider-web of amounts moving as many as three times and finally spread in small-dollar increments across a multitude of different assets, mostly telecom fiber and equipment,” writes Cooper. Her department’s painstaking work revealed 49 prepaid-capacity accounts totaling $3.8 billion over five quarters. The movement of those amounts from the income statement to the balance sheet boosted earnings.

Cooper explains that “prepaid capacity” was designed to represent the costs of leasing fiber-optic lines that had fallen out of use in the wake of the telecom bust and produced scant revenue. Instead of booking the costs as lease expenses as they occurred, however, Sullivan and his mates entered the costs as capital assets, allowing them to record the expense over time — as a company normally would for an asset like a building. It was the CFO’s way of buying time until wished-for revenue caught up with the misclassified expenses.

Receiving no substantiation for the prepaid capacity from Sullivan and Myers, Cooper decided to follow the trail through accounting. What ensued is the high point of her book, which builds suspense like a crackerjack detective novel. She and Smith go door-to-door up the chain of command. Before their first interview, with accounting manager Betty Vinson, Cooper’s hands were shaking. It’s no mean feat to turn a well-known story of an internal audit into a thriller, but such small personal details not only encourage readers to identify with Cooper, they also build an exquisite level of tension.

Vinson blandly told the auditors that although she made prepaid-capacity entries involving hundreds of millions of dollars, she didn’t know what they were for and couldn’t back them up with any data. Instead, Vinson simply said Myers and general accounting director Buddy Yates had provided her with the figures. Confronted by Cooper and Smith in his office, Yates passed the buck up to Myers. It stopped there, with the WorldCom controller admitting that the entries had no support. Once the first false entry was made, there was no turning back. The rest is history, with the company unraveling into the biggest bankruptcy in corporate annals.

Grim as it sometimes gets, Cooper’s tale isn’t without humor. Much of it stems from the author’s recollection of Ebbers, who comes across as a ravenous serial acquirer — of personal effects no less than corporations. Seeking projects for his retirement, the CEO frantically bought up rice fields, timberlands, and the biggest ranch he could find with borrowed cash, and was the proud owner of an aptly named boat, the Aquasition.

Ebbers’s ignorance often seemed as outsized as his ego. Early on in Cooper’s tenure at the company, then-CFO Charles Cannada told the new internal audit director that “Bernie doesn’t want you to use the words ‘internal controls’ in any more of your audit reports.” The phrase aggravated Ebbers because he didn’t know what it meant — a telling gap for the chief of a company soon to spin out of control. Ebbers would later use his alleged lack of accounting knowledge to unsuccessfully argue in court that he wasn’t in on the fraud.

To be sure, Extraordinary Circumstances (soon to be published by John Wiley & Sons) has its flaws. The book, which is strongest when it reflects Cooper’s first-hand experience, dwells too much on recapping the familiar corporate history of the rise and fall of WorldCom and the broader Wall Street scene during the bubble. As a former auditor, Cooper also displays some of the tics of a beginning writer, reporting “it’s 2001″ or “it’s the summer of 1992″ whenever she wants to move the plot along.

But those are minor quibbles. This is a heroic, often exciting tale of a person who, in the course of doing her job, stumbles on a big lie and pushes on to get to the bottom of it. Worthy as her achievement was, Cooper reminds us how tough it can be to get to the truth. “At times,” she writes, her work was “a slow, plodding development of facts, checking theories, trying to find connections, and thinking through the issues until you get it right.”

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