Similar to “Black Tuesday,” “Watergate” or “9/11,” the term has encapsulated a series of events into a single word or phrase. It is arguably the most well-known, and most scrutinized, financial collapse in U.S. history. This is evidenced by the multitude of books and movies that have rehashed and referenced the collapse.
December 2, 2011, marks the 10 year anniversary of the company filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Ten years later, the term is still synonymous with fraud and is, perhaps, more relevant than ever before.
The scandal that was brought to light triggered a domino effect that can still be seen today. Most notably, Enron ignited the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act. This act resulted in the largest overhaul of the financial markets since the Exchange Act of 1934. This overhaul intended to prevent, discourage and/or identify future collapses.
One of the many significant SOX requirements was believed to be strict whistle-blower protections and protocols for public companies. These protections and protocols were included to safeguard and encourage whistleblowers who found themselves in the midst of Enron-like situations.
Ironically, these future whistleblowers started to use Enron as a reference point in their own claims. Having worked as a forensic accountant in a post-Enron environment, I have seen multiple instances where the whistleblower actually cited Enron in their anonymous letter or hotline report. This practice has led to the inclusion of Enron as a keyword for investigations alongside terms like “illegal,” “cheat” and “hide.” Many of the vulnerabilities that led to the company’s collapse are now “red flags” for fraud.
Enron has become the ultimate example for whistleblowers to point to and for forensic accountants to measure against.
In response to events in more recent years and even larger corporate failures, including the fall of Wall Street heavyweights and the surfacing of multiple Ponzi schemes, many of the SOX whistleblower protocols have been amended or replaced by the Dodd-Frank Act.
The most recent changes, which went into effect earlier this year, encourage direct reporting to the appropriate government entity, extend the anti-retaliation periods and also provide greater incentives in the form of cash rewards. Theoretically, the current environment will result in more whistleblower reports and presumably more references to Enron allowing the term’s relevance to live on.