Nearly three years ago, Cynthia Cooper was in the eye of the storm of the world’s largest accounting fraud when she led the internal audit team that uncovered the $11-billion corporate fraud at WorldCom.
For her role in detecting and reporting the situation at the nation’s second-largest long-distance phone company, the Clinton native was named one of Time magazine’s 2002 Persons of the Year, along with Enron’s Sherron Watkins and the FBI’s Coleen Rowley.
“I can tell you that finding yourself at the center of a storm such as this one will put you on an emotional roller coaster,” said Cooper. “At various times, I think that each member of my team probably felt every negative emotion in the world, from heartbreak to disbelief to betrayal. At times, we were overwhelmed by it all. We felt anxiety not knowing what would happen next, and people were concerned about losing their jobs.”
When the dust settled, Cooper was hailed a heroine and her name became synonymous with ethical accounting practices in corporate America. She remained with the company, now known as MCI, as chief audit executive until last July, when she established her consulting firm full time in response to the litany of requests from national associations, corporations and universities wanting her expertise.
As president of Cynthia Cooper Consulting, she provides consulting and training services in internal audits, internal controls, governance and ethics. Cooper is a certified public accountant, a certified information systems auditor, a certified fraud examiner and a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, The Institute of Internal Auditors and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. She previously served on the accounting advisory board for the University of Alabama, and currently chairs the Louisiana State University Center for Internal Auditing Advisory Board.
“I wanted to share the lessons learned from my experience, not only with companies, but also high school and college students, and to emphasize the importance of strong ethical and moral leadership,” said Cooper.
Keeping up with the demand has required Cooper to travel thousands of air miles throughout the U.S. and Canada, conducting corporate seminars and continuing education courses on how to strengthen systems of governance.
She’s spoken to nearly every national professional accounting association in the U.S. and numerous other professional organizations, including a stop at the State Auditors National Convention. On the college circuit, she’s been to Cornell, Syracuse, Marquette and several Southeastern Conference schools, including Mississippi State University, Louisiana State University, the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama.
Cooper recently returned from Lehigh University, where she and a professor led a new MBA class through a Harvard-prepared ethical case study, which required students to role-play various ethical dilemmas and to explain how they arrived at their decisions.
“I feel very strongly that ethics should be included in the core curriculum of high schools and universities,” she emphasized. “Case studies are an excellent way to do that.”
When she began making the circuit, it had been nearly two decades since Cooper had been a college student. She earned an accounting degree from Mississippi State University and a master’s of accountancy degree from the University of Alabama before working in public accounting for PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte & Touche, both in Atlanta. She returned to Jackson as an internal auditor for WorldCom in 1994, where she discovered improper accounting practices that culminated in making public on June 26, 2001, the initial $3.8-billion accounting fraud. The news reverberated around the world.
“While I was a private citizen the day before the fraud was announced, immediately after, I was thought of as a public figure,” said Cooper. “I never contemplated being thrown into the public spotlight and was completely unprepared for it. I awoke to find that I had been bestowed with the not so flattering name of whistleblower.”
Cooper emerged as a champion for “always doing the right thing, no matter what.”
“People sometimes ask me whether my team and I debated coming forward once we identified the fraud,” she said. “My answer is always that our decision to come forward was easy. We knew what we believed was right. We found ourselves standing at a crossroads where there was only one right path to take, and we would take it again. But I want young people to understand that doing the right thing does not mean that there will be no cost. There is often a cost and it can be severe. Stand by the truth and do the right thing even though at times it may be difficult and there may be a price to pay. The responsibility of making ethical decisions during difficult times may weigh heavily on one’s shoulders, but the weight of deception is exceedingly heavier and exacts a dire toll.”
In 2003, the American Accounting Association awarded her the Accounting Exemplar Award. That same year, along with Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Rep. Michael Oxley and Sherron Watkins, Cooper was awarded the Maria & Sidney E. Rolfe Award by the Women’s Economic Round Table, which recognizes extraordinary contributions to educating the public about economics, business and finance.
In 2004, Cooper was inducted into the AICPA Business & Industry Hall of Fame, the first woman to achieve the distinction. The mother of two young daughters, who shares parenting duties with her husband, Lance Cooper, was featured as one of 25 influential working mothers in the November issue of Working Mother magazine.
“There have been some difficult times, but for the most part, I’ve received a very warm and gracious reception,” said Cooper. “I’ve found that most people are honorable and want to do the right thing.”
Cooper, who had always worked behind the scenes and was initially reluctant to speak to large groups, has received kudos for her “compelling message,” an audience member observed.
“I’m not a public speaker, so it’s not always easy to get up in front of large groups, but I felt so strongly about sharing this message,” she said.
She’s been invited to Europe, Australia and South Africa, but has limited her appearances to North America — for now.
Other than employing an administrative assistant, Cooper runs a solo operation and contracts consultants as needed. She may later add consultants, perhaps members of that famed audit team.
“While the story of WorldCom is a tragedy, it is also one of hope and encouragement,” said Cooper. “Companies all over the country are making substantial improvements in systems of governance and internal controls to better protect the public’s interest.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.