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WorldCom whistle-blower shares inside story with MBA students

The former WorldCom internal auditor, best known for blowing the whistle on the biggest fraud in corporate history, urged business educators to arm their students with the tools they need to make moral and ethical decisions.

Cynthia Cooper, on campus recently as part of a lecture series organized by the College of Business and Economics MBA program and sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, traced the history of the WorldCom scandal in a speech entitled, “The WorldCom Story: Navigating the Storm.”

“It is incumbent on each of us to decipher the lessons learned from the recent corporate scandals, share those lessons with future generations and make real changes that will positively impact not only our companies, but our culture,” said Cooper, who unearthed WorldCom’s fraud during a 2002 audit.

“Students need to be aware of the responsibilities awaiting them, of the significance of their choices, the consequences of their actions and of the effect that everyone—individually and collectively—can have on ethical conduct and strong moral leadership.”

According to Cooper, it is essential to provide students with the ability to detect, decipher and respond to ethical dilemmas. She also noted that the support of moral leadership is not limited to business leaders alone.

“One can’t choose life’s circumstances, but we can control our attitude on how we deal with them,” Cooper said. “It is ethical conduct and strong moral leadership that represent the true bedrock of sound corporate governance.

"We each have the opportunity to help ensure that the moral fabric of our country is strong, whether we are professionals who institute strong systems of ethics and governance, parents who teach children the value of morals and ethical decision making, or teachers who incorporate ethics into the curriculum.”

Real-life learning and leadership opportunities

During an audit in May 2002, Cooper discovered that some of WorldCom's financial practices were suspect. The company, then based in Clinton, Miss., had been classifying operating costs as capital expenditures, thereby inflating its profits. She took her findings to the audit committee of WorldCom's board in June 2002.

Within days, the board fired its CFO, Scott Sullivan, and revealed to the investing public—and government regulators—that the company had overstated its profits by what ultimately proved to be $11 billion. It was the biggest corporate fraud in U.S. history.

According to Richard M. Durand, the Herbert E. Ehlers Dean of CBE, the lecture series is a perfect example of how CBE provides real-life learning and leadership opportunities through experienced faculty and partnerships with the nation’s top corporations.

“Ms. Cooper’s willingness to share her WorldCom experiences with our students is admirable and priceless,” Durand said. “We truly value the opportunity to offer this kind of experience to our students and want to thank PricewaterhouseCoopers which made this opportunity come to fruition.”

Prior to her lecture, Cooper spent the day facilitating an ethics workshop with Parveen Gupta, MBA core faculty member, during MBA Orientation. In an interview following the lecture series, Cooper applauded Lehigh’s MBA program.

“One of the most impressive qualities of the Lehigh MBA is that it includes ethics in the core of its curriculum,” Cooper said.

The lessons shared in Cooper’s presentation were not lost on her audience. Andrew Frisbey, a new MBA&E student, was impressed with the opportunity to hear first hand about one of the country’s most complex corporate scandals.

“This is one of the reasons I selected Lehigh,” Frisbey said. “In addition to being the only business college in the area accredited through AACSB, Lehigh offers fascinating real-life programs such as this lecture.”

--Kim Plyler

Posted on Thursday, January 20, 2005

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