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CFOs Feel Pressure To Lie

A new survey shows about one in six chief financial officers reporting having been pressured by chief executives to misrepresent financial results, and 5 percent say they've violated accounting rules in the last five years.

The study, published in Thursday's edition of CFO magazine, comes amidst continued worries about the integrity of earnings reports and a number of high-profile arrests, including those Thursday of two former WorldCom executives on fraud and conspiracy charges.

Julia Homer, the magazine's editor in chief, said the figures are not surprising.

"It's very common knowledge," she said. "Anecdotally, we've heard quite a bit over the last few years about the pressure on companies to make those quarterly earnings estimates."

Of 141 CFOs of public companies who responded to the survey, 17 percent said they'd been pressured by CEOs and 5 percent acknowledged violating GAAP, or "generally accepted accounting principles," once in the past five years. Two-thirds of the 141 respondents worked at companies with more than a billion dollars in annual revenues.

Still, 93 percent denied engaging in so-called "aggressive accounting" practices.

"One clear message is that not everybody responds to the pressure," said Homer.

The magazine did not say how many CFOs received the survey. No margin of error for the poll was given.

Among the respondents, 27 percent said they had no debt reflected on their balance sheets, but 61 percent of those said the result was achieved by so-called "special purpose entities." Enron Corp. has been accused of improper use of such entities to hide the company's true financial condition.

Over half said they report "pro forma" results in quarterly earnings, a method of measuring profits and losses that often paints a rosier picture of a company. But 28 percent of those who report such earnings said they do not reconcile those results with GAAP standards.

W. Michael Hoffman, executive director for the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College in Waltham, said the data are consistent with other studies that have shown even more CFOs reporting such pressure from other employees - not just CEOs - and that workers generally feel pressure to compromise ethics for the gain of the company.

"I'm not sure I am surprised, especially when you think about all the pressures CEOs are under to meet the expectations of Wall Street," he said. "I can imagine the CFO feeling the pressure from the CEO who's saying 'we're not going to get a buy rating any longer on Wall Street from these analysts."'

Fifty-nine percent of CFOs said they have disclosed more information to investors in the past three months, and 57 percent said they would disclose more in the coming year.

By Justin Pope

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