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Enron whistle blower warns of potential consequences

Sherron Watkins keynote speaker at Beyond Rubies conference in Cedar Rapids

Sherron Watkins, former Enron vice president and keynote presenter at Beyond Rubies, Kirkwood Community College . (Courtesy photo)
Sherron Watkins, former Enron vice president and keynote presenter at Beyond Rubies, Kirkwood Community College . (Courtesy photo)

If Sherron Watkins had to do it all over again, the former Enron executive still would have warned then-CEO Kenneth Lay  about the company's accounting irregularities — but she would not have done it alone.

"I was naive and optimistic because I was talking about problems that had happened under his (Lay's) watch as chairman and CEO," said Watkins in advance of her keynote speech for the Beyond Rubies conference next week at the Kirkwood Center.

"I kept thinking, 'He's really getting bad advice from people who were trying to cover their behind.' But the reality was that's what he really wanted to hear and he was gravitating toward that.

"I wish I had taken a breath and had more people go with me who had voiced similar concerns. I think he was able to dismiss me as a lone voice, a lone opinion."

After discovering Enron's "off-the-books arrangements," Watkins, then an Enron vice president, sounded the alarm that led to the bankruptcy and demise of the Houston, Texas, energy giant. It also sent Lay and other Enron executives to prison.

Watkins, who was touted as the whistle blower, will bring her presentation, "The Courage of Your Convictions: Lessons of Enron and Ethical Corporate Leadership," to the  Beyond Rubies conference 1 to 2:15 p.m., Wednesday, March 27.

Watkins said anyone who decides to bring unethical or illegal practices within their company to light must be prepared for the potential consequences.

"If you want to have the courage of your convictions, you have to safeguard your reputation," Watkins said. "I could take the risk because I didn't have any skeletons in my closet.

"My peer group put things on their expenses accounts at Arthur Andersen (the company's outside accounting firm) and Enron that weren't appropriate. Their rationale was, 'Well, the company can't afford to pay me what I'm really worth, so they expect us to pad our expense reports.'

"It was common practice within Enron that if someone had done something to warrant firing, but it was 'sticky,' they would do a review of their expense reports. Usually they would find something egregious enough to justify firing them."

In her keynote, Watkins will share how small steps led to fraud and ethical issues at Enron, and what individual employees can do to avoid a similar slippery slope. She also will share her views on how to spot the warning signs of an erosion in values within an organization.

Watkins said the Government Accountability Project website at www.whistleblower.org offers valuable information and advice for anyone considering blowing the whistle about irregularities or unethical behavior.

"Most people think they’ll do the right thing," Watkins said. "If you see unethical practices at your company, your career is forever changed. You’re either going along with it, or on the flipside, protesting, and be labeled a troublemaker.

"Be prepared for the consequences. You need to have a plan, and a backup plan."

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