When I studied accounting at the University of Illinois, the pinnacle of the accounting profession was Arthur Andersen & Co in downtown Chicago. My accounting professor Arthur Wyatt later went to the firm. AA was a respected pillar of the Chicago business community. Until Arthur Andersen was mistakenly destroyed by the federal government.
Three years ago the Houston Chronicle asked me to write an Op-Ed piece on the criminal conviction of Arthur Anderson & Co. I predicted the firm would prevail on appeal. Arthur Anderson won in the U.S. Supreme Court. But the accounting firm was already dead, killed in a wanton act of revenge by federal prosecutors.
The "Department of Justice" (so-called) had persuaded the trial judge to permit Arthur Andersen to be convicted of federal criminal violations without any evidence of guilt! It seems strange, but it happened. Every day prosecutors are allowed to bend flexible federal criminal laws to make criminal that which is not criminal.
Today we see similar behavior in the way "anti-terrorism" laws are being used to harass innocent citizens, or to harass illegal aliens who are not terrorists but who are merely scooped up in some dragnet, or to grossly over-charge people by inflating their behavior into "terrorism." Muslims are a favorite target of such federal overreaching. Despite all of the post 9/11 prosecutions very little evidence of terrorism has been produced in court.
People often say to themselves, "Who cares. I don’t violate the law, so what do I care if some ‘bad people’ are convicted?" In fact, innocent citizens are accused of crimes every day. Families are destroyed. Innocent conduct is often criminalized by prosecutors. And judges often bow down to prosecutorial interpretations of legal issues even if these interpretations are nonsense.
Being charged with a crime can ruin an innocent person’s life; the financial costs are horrible. People are often jailed pending appeal, and there is no financial remuneration for what the ‘sovereign’ government does to its citizens and residents.
Arthur Anderson was charged with crimes because the accounting firm supposedly sought to cover-up criminality in the Enron scandal. But AA & Co. was not directly accused of committing a crime, only of seeking to conceal evidence of other people’s crimes. If guilty of such conduct, the accountants should have been convicted. But the Justice Department convinced the judge to let the jury convict Arthur Andersen even if the firm was innocent of any wrongful intent. The jury did what it was told to do (sounds like Russian justice, doesn’t it?) and convicted Arthur Andersen.
The accounting firm was destroyed. Prosecutors had bragging rights until the U. S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction on Monday. But it was too late for AA. A major Chicago firm had already disappeared. Oh, and thousands of people had lost their jobs. All because the judge made a mistake. For them, there is no compensation.
Congress needs to place new limits, more limits on the power of federal prosecutors to use "creative" lawyering to destroy innocent lives. When legislators pass vague laws, as they are now doing in the name of "anti-terrorism," it is the innocent who suffer the most.
Sometimes people make a comeback from a wrongful conviction. It isn’t easy. A few recover. Arthur Andersen will not be one of them. Chicago has suffered a great loss.