This case focuses on improper accounting and management decision making at Waste Management, Inc., during the period of its accounting fraud from 1992 to 1997, and the role and responsibilities of Arthur Andersen LLP (Andersen), the Waste Management auditors, with respect to its audit of the company’s financial statements. The case illustrates the kinds of financial statement frauds that were common during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The key accounting issue was the existence of a series of Proposed Adjusting Journal Entries (PAJEs) recommended by Andersen to correct errors that understated expenses and overstated earnings in the company’s financial statements. These were not recorded even though the company had promised to do so. Andersen developed a “Summary of Action Steps” that was designed to change accounting in the future in order to comply with GAAP but did not require retroactive adjustments to correct past errors. In essence, it was an agreement to do something in the future that should have been done already, with no controls or insistence by Andersen that the proposed changes would in fact occur. According to SEC Litigation Release 17435:
Management consistently refused to make the adjustments called for by the PAJEs. Instead, defendants secretly entered into an agreement with Andersen fraudulently to write off the accumulated errors over periods of up to ten years and to change the underlying accounting practices, but to do so only in future periods.
The action steps were not followed by Waste Management. The company promised to look at its cost deferral, capitalization, and reserve policies and make needed adjustments. It never followed through, however, and the audit committee was either inattentive to the financial reporting implications or chose to look the other way. According to Litigation Release 17435, writing off the errors and changing the underlying accounting practices as prescribed in the agreement would have prevented the company from meeting earnings targets and defendants from enriching themselves. Defendants got performance-based Page 580bonuses based on the company’s inflated earnings, retained their high-paying jobs, and received stock options. Some also received enhanced retirement benefits based on the improper bonuses, and some received lucrative employment contracts. Dean Buntrock, the CEO and chair of the board; Philip Rooney, director, president, and chief operating officer (COO); and James Koenig, executive vice president and CFO, also avoided losses by cashing in their Waste Management stock while the fraud was ongoing. Just prior to the public disclosure of the accounting irregularities, Buntrock enriched himself by obtaining a tax benefit by donating inflated company stock to his college alma mater to fund a building in his name.
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