The former CFO of Enron warned a group of execs that large US companies are doing the same things he did

Andrew “Andy” Fastow, the former chief financial officer of Enron, warned a group of business execs that many companies are doing the exact same things he did at the now-defunct energy giant.

Fastow, who spent six years in prison, spoke on Tuesday afternoon to a group of 200 people in a private room upstairs at STK in New York’s Meatpacking District.

The event was organised by a number of local chapters of Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO) and World Presidents’ Organisation.

Hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, a YPO member and former chairman of the Manhattan chapter, was in attendance.

He sent out the following event recap in an email:

I went to an event yesterday afternoon at which Andy Fastow spoke for two hours. You may recall that he was the CFO of Enron and served six years in prison for his crimes — and he’s now out on the speaking circuit. I agreed with most of what he said. He acknowledged that he was the primary cause of Enron’s demise and apologised for all of the harm this caused. He said he knowingly engaged in numerous transactions that were designed to mislead investors by hiding debt in special purpose entities, etc. He also noted, however, that every single one of them was approved by Enron’s board, auditors, etc. — and, most alarmingly, gave numerous examples of many major companies today are doing similar things, just not (for most companies anyway) to the same degree. For example, he showed this picture and asked if anyone could name the major company whose global headquarters this was:

The answer is Apple — this is the company’s global headquarters in Ireland, as you can see from the full picture:

His point — an entirely correct one — is that the world’s largest company today is engaged in tax dodging behaviour that, while perhaps technically legal, is clearly designed to increase profits and inflate the stock by misleading and confusing regulators (and perhaps investors) via a massively complex web of entities — exactly what he did at Enron! And this is 100% routine, common behaviour among most large US companies. In summary, he argued, what sunk Enron wasn’t any one deal — it was that he (and Skilling and Lay) used techniques that others were also using, taking advantage of grey areas in accounting rules to pretty things up for investors, but took it to such an extreme degree that they blew up the company.

So why does this crap keep happening? (And it does — just look at SunEdison and Valeant.) Fastow talked off of this slide, explaining how he rationalized doing things that he knew were wrong:

Some very good lessons here…

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