Show Her The Money – Excerpt

Show Her The Money

Sitting in front of the senate finance committee was like sprinting down Dallas Central Expressway, naked. If I didn’t get run over and killed, I was bound to become the butt of everyone’s joke first thing in the morning when the newspapers came out.

Either way, I’d rather get a root canal, have lunch with Aunt Dru, who could bore God into a premature Armageddon, or remarry my lying, cheating mongrel of an ex-husband than face a row of senators bent on ferreting out the truth behind one of the worst accounting hoodwink jobs in history. Never mind that they got the first scent of blood from me. Less than a month ago, I thought I could set things straight, Marvel Energy would get their hand slapped, and all would be well. How was I to know that what I discovered was only the tip of the iceberg?

I’d finished giving my prepared statement, and now it was time to run through the rack line with all those fun and happy senators who vaguely reminded me of a movie I once saw about the Salem witch trials.

“Ms. Pearl, I’d like some clarification on a few points.”

Eyeing Senator Santorelli, a romantic looking Italian with perfect hair, I nodded.

“What was your position within the accounting firm before you were dismissed?”

“I was promoted to senior manager last December, with the understanding I was being groomed to make partner within three years. This was my first year to head the Marvel Energy audit. I reported directly to Lowell Jaworski, the partner in charge of the firm’s Dallas based energy and petroleum clients.”

“When you initially discovered the irregularities in Marvel’s accounting methods, were you aware how deeply your own firm was involved?”

“I had no idea.” That all came later. It broke my heart to discover the firm where I’d worked for over eight years was rotten at the core. But I didn’t say that. I was pretty sure the finance committee could care less about my heart.

“What sort of discrepancies, in particular, did you find while working on the Marvel audit?”

Oh boy. This was the fun part. “Based on the dollar amount of oil reserves Marvel claims to hold, they own close to a sixteenth of the world’s supply of petroleum. Marvel is a large company, sir, but not that large. My staff was only able to track down a fraction of their claim. Marvel has less than sixty million dollars of debt on the balance sheet, but I believe they owe various banks upwards of four hundred million. All of this debt was carried off the books, within a maze of partnerships and offshore trusts. As I dug deeper, I found out the company overstated their quarterly income over the past five quarters by almost twenty million.”

“When you asked about these discrepancies, what was Mr. Jaworski’s reaction?”

I cleared my throat and shot a glance at my hired gun attorney, Mr. Dryer. He nodded slightly, indicating I should go ahead. Returning my gaze to Santorelli, I caught an odd look on his face, one I couldn’t decipher. “Mr. Jaworski told me my chances of making partner would fall to zilch if I didn’t back off and leave it alone.”

Santorelli paged through the copies of documents I’d provided to the committee, then looked at me with that weird look again. He almost looked like he wanted to smile. There was a bit of a twinkle in his dark eyes. Or maybe it was just the awful, fluorescent light in the hearing room. At any rate, I had the sense he found all of this amusing in some way, and that pissed me off. After becoming a CPA, landing a job at the most prestigious firm in the universe, then working ungodly hours, week after week, year after year, all so I could make it to the top, I was now on unemployment. And Santorelli thought this was funny? I couldn’t believe it. Maybe he just had that kind of face that always looks like it wants to smile.

“Ms. Pearl,” he began in a solemn voice that belied his expression, “I see workpapers and documents here, along with the preliminary findings of the SEC investigation, that go a long way toward backing up your claim that Marvel grossly understated debt and overstated assets, but nothing in here gives us any proof that the irregularities weren’t the result of error, or miscommunication, or negligence. You say the Marvel execs and the partners of your firm knowingly hoodwinked investors, that all the misstatements were on purpose, but we can’t begin investigating anyone unless we have some sort of evidence. All we can do with these documents is allow the SEC to file suit against Marvel and the firm for what amounts to setting up a maze of companies so complicated, it would take Einstein a year to figure it out. It’s no wonder there are so many mistakes.”

The sole woman on the committee, Barbara Clemmons from New Hampshire, piped up then. “Isn’t it true that you approached the SEC after you were let go from your position at the firm?”

Again, I glanced at Mr. Dryer. He leaned over and whispered, “Tell the truth. They’re going to try and say you did all of this for revenge, and without the memos, it doesn’t look good. Just do the best you can.”

Do the best I could? Oh, Lord. Turning back to face the row of senators, I said, “Mr. Jaworski told me, if I was determined to take my suspicions to the SEC, he’d fire me. In light of what I found, I didn’t see I had any choice.”

“If you’re so certain this was a conspiracy, where’s the evidence?”

Time for some major ass covering. I mentally slipped into my iron underwear. “The Marvel executives sold every share of Marvel stock they were legally allowed to sell the day I took my findings to the SEC, and at the same time, put a freeze on the employees and wouldn’t allow any of the retirement fund Marvel stock to be sold. Then they announced an adjustment to earnings and the stock price fell by fifty percent.”

“All that proves is the Marvel executives were running scared because they knew you were opening the company up for an SEC investigation. There’s no law against someone looking out after their own interests. Perhaps they froze the retirement fund to avoid a further drop in the price, which would protect the investors. As for the earnings adjustment, they no doubt wanted to set the record straight in their own way, rather than allow the perception of wrongdoing among their shareholders.”

Un-freaking-believable. She was painting the execs at Marvel out to be the wounded party in all this. They’d lied, cheated and ripped off the investors by selling out before the stock price tanked. Barbara Clemmons had the nerve to insinuate that I was Chicken Little, causing a panic when clearly, it was all just a big misunderstanding.

She said in a tone now almost hostile, “I was given to understand we would see evidence at today’s hearing. Instead, all you have are theories.” The other senators nodded agreement, looking annoyed. Except Santorelli.

He was frowning at Ms. Clemmons, but she didn’t appear to notice. Instead, she was frowning at me, as though I was the bad guy in all of this. Dammit! If only I had the freakin’ memos. Time to lay out The Big Confession. “Almost two weeks ago, I obtained copies of several memos between Lowell Jaworski and the CEO and CFO at Marvel. They prove the complicated partnership scheme was designed for the express purpose of hiding debt and losses that would affect Marvel’s bottom line, and therefore the price of their stock. The memos also prove that the firm agreed to look the other way in exchange for very lucrative consulting work.”

“The SEC informed us of the alleged memos,” she said, her middle-aged jowly face set in stern disapproval, “but where are these memos? Why didn’t you turn what you had over to the SEC investigator?”

Okay, this was it. The moment I’d dreaded since the instant I realized I no longer had my ace in the hole. “The memos were scanned and saved onto several disks, one of which I stored in a safe deposit box at my bank, some I hid in my home, and one was earmarked to be taken to the SEC. Before I could get the disk to the SEC, it was stolen, along with all but one of the hidden copies. The disk in the lock box was accidentally taken by my ex-husband.” Who still had a key because I was so busy working my ass off, I didn’t think to have it changed. Because the only things in the damn box were our marriage license – yeah, like I wanted to keep that safe – and my mother’s will. Because I forgot George even had a key. Huge mistake on my part. I was convinced someone paid George big bucks to swipe the disk, but I wasn’t going to say that. I already looked like a fringe lunatic, paranoid and grasping at conspiracy theories. No way I wanted to get into it about George.

“Did you contact the police about the theft?”

“Yes, but they weren’t able to reach any conclusion as to who might have broken into my home.” So much for the boys in blue upholding the law. They’d acted as though they’d like to arrest me for being such a pain in their ass. Floppy disks didn’t register on their radar as any consequence. That the disks represented all that stood between me and very hot water never seemed to register. They took a report and I hadn’t heard from them since. “I thought I’d be able to retrieve the memos before today’s hearing. Regrettably, I could not.”

“So,” she said a bit smugly, “there will never be any evidence to prove your claim. Is that right?”

“Respectfully, no, that is not right. There is one disk remaining, but I don’t have access to it.”

Santorelli spoke before Clemmons could ask another snarky question. “Where is it?”

I panicked, and Mr. Dryer leaned close. “You have to tell them.” He raised one graying brow, reminding me of my father. This wasn’t a good thing.

Taking a deep breath, I looked at Santorelli. “Inside a box that was taken by someone who misunderstood which box I intended to get rid of.”

“The solution seems simple, Ms. Pearl. Get the box back.”

“I can’t get the box back because it was sold.” In a garage sale, by my Aunt Fred, who’s the Garage Sale Queen, always hunting for inventory. But no way I was telling the senator, or anyone else. Someone had taken five of my copies, and I was determined to hang on to the sixth. It held everything the justice department needed to charge the Marvel Energy executives and the partners of my ex-employer CPA firm with felony charges of fraud, gross negligence, and perjury.

The only people who knew where the box was now located were me, Aunt Fred, and my third grade teacher, who bought the box. Me and Aunt Fred weren’t talking, and Mrs. Bohannon was currently rolling across the Serengeti in the back of a Land Rover, shooting pictures of giraffes, completely unaware she had the key to my fate stored in one of her closets. “I can retrieve the disk within three weeks, as soon as the person who bought the box returns from out of the country.”

Santorelli glanced at his fellow senators, then leveled a look at me. “I assume no one purchased an empty box, Ms. Pearl. What was in the box?”

A sharp look at Mr. Dryer. He only nodded, and his already thin lips completely disappeared. We’d been all through the box issue. If I lied, if I said something was in the box, other than what really was in the box, it could harm my credibility if the investigation ended with criminal charges against Marvel Energy. It didn’t seem reasonable that anyone would ever be the wiser, but Mr. Dryer assured me they had ways of finding these things out. Not wanting to arm the Marvel defense team with any ammunition, I decided to tell the truth, even if it meant laying my pride at the feet of the senate finance committee – and the rest of the United States. At least, the ones who watched C-SPAN. I looked straight at the senator and said clearly, “Mister Bob.”

“Mister Bob?”

“A blow-up doll.”

The army of press congregated behind me, along with a smorgasbord of others, including the head honcho of the SEC, chuckled and guffawed. The senators all smiled. All except Barbara. I tried to save face. “It was a gag gift, given to me on my thirtieth birthday.”

Santorelli stopped grinning, barely, and said in a pseudo-forceful tone, “I believe we’ve covered everything, Ms. Pearl. Thank you again for coming forward and we’d like to reconvene this hearing when you have the memo copies in hand.”

“Yes, sir. I will be here.”

He leaned forward a bit, his dark eyes trained on mine as though he really wanted me to get what he was about to say. “Ms. Pearl, it takes a lot of courage for a person to do the right thing, then suffer the consequences as you have. However, I must advise you of the precarious position you’re in. Although this was the first year you were in charge of the Marvel audit, you were involved with the audit over the past five years, in a lesser managerial capacity, but still in a position of authority over the audit staff. If further investigation by the SEC reveals malfeasance or negligence on the part of your firm, you are now under the umbrella of immunity this committee has extended to you in return for your testimony. You will avoid prosecution, civil or criminal. But I remind you, immunity was granted based on your full cooperation.”

“Sir, I’ve told you everything I know, provided all the documents and evidence needed to proceed with the investigation.”

“Ms. Pearl, your immunity can be revoked in the absence of all requested information. You said you had the memos. Now you say you don’t. Without them, it looks as though you blew the whistle to cover yourself in the event Marvel’s house of cards caved in. It comes down to a you say, they say situation. From the look of what you have provided, Marvel is very close to defaulting on a large amount of their debt, which will force them into bankruptcy, which would have caused a lot of questions to be asked, perhaps putting you in the line of fire.”

I leaned toward Mr. Dryer. “Can they revoke immunity?”

He nodded. “I think they only offered it because they want those memos. Without them, he’s right and it looks like you sang just to cover yourself.”

“Does the fact I knew nothing about any of it have no impact at all?”

Mr. Dryer shot me a look that said he wasn’t buying any of it either. Even my own attorney didn’t believe me. For eight hundred bucks an hour, the least he could have done was fake it. “Like the man said, it’s your word against theirs. I suggest you do all you can to get your hands on that disk.”

A mental picture of Mrs. Bohannon popped into my head. She was a ditzy old girl when I was in third grade. Dear Lord, please, please let her still have the box, and the disk I’d stuck in the bottom of it.

“Ms. Pearl, do you understand what I’m saying to you?” Santorelli asked in an even voice.

“Yes, sir. I will get the memos.” Or die trying.