THE FRIENDLY, SINCERE MAN IN the video is saying what an excellent company Arthur Andersen is and how much he values its counsel. “I get good advice, if you will, from their people based upon how we’re doing business and how we’re operating, over and above just sort of the normal by-the-books auditing arrangement,” he says. “They’ve got the traditional role to fill as our auditors … . They do that extraordinarily well.”
The man in the video is Richard B. “Dick” Cheney, the vice president of the United States. The year was 1996, when Cheney was the chairman and CEO of Halliburton Company, a multibillion-dollar oil-field-services company now based in Houston and Arthur Andersen’s third-largest client. The 35-second spot was part of a promotional video that was distributed to Arthur Andersen’s partners only last year, after Cheney had become vice president and before Andersen was convicted of obstruction of justice in July in the investigation of Enron (its second-largest client)—an event that destroyed what was left of its worldwide accounting business. The video was unearthed in May by the Wall Street Journal.
Cheney’s endorsement of Arthur Andersen is typical of the back-scratching that goes on in the business world. It was done long before Andersen became a corporate felon. But as the Bush administration moves to smite the miscreants from Enron, WorldCom, and other companies for perpetrating fraud upon the American people, Cheney’s cameo has taken on a new and more ominous meaning. That’s because the vice president and his former employer are now themselves subjects of a preliminary inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible accounting improprieties sanctioned by Arthur Andersen. Its purpose is to see if Halliburton made an accounting change in order to fudge its revenues and then failed to disclose the change at the appropriate time.
But the SEC probe is just part of Cheney’s Halliburton-related problems. Cheney left the company in August 2000 with a stunning stock payoff of some $30 million. A little over a year later, Halliburton’s stock went into free fall, largely the result of asbestos liabilities that the company acquired when Cheney engineered a 1998 merger with Dresser Industries, a Dallas-based provider of oil-field services. Those liabilities detonated in a series of whopping jury verdicts in late 2001. The 63 percent drop in Halliburton’s stock price that year devastated ordinary shareholders. Some of those shareholders later joined in class-action lawsuits against Halliburton, claiming that Cheney and others artificially inflated the company’s stock price and misrepresented its business condition. A watchdog group called Judicial Watch filed suit for similar reasons. And of course a sitting vice president under such scrutiny draws reporters like sugar draws ants: A query on the Google search engine specifying “Cheney” and “ SEC” yields 30,000 hits. Unable to shake this legal and political tar baby, or to answer reporters’ questions, Cheney has been noticeably absent from the national