ANALYSIS: Partners and shareholders cannot be immune fromresponsibility for corporate malfeasance

Andersen's employees seem to have better PR instincts than its PR pros. If sources near the situation are right, recent employee demonstrations supporting the company - or more accurately, against the Justice Department - are totally spontaneous, conceived, and organized by the employees themselves, right down to the "I Am Andersen" buttons.

Andersen's employees seem to have better PR instincts than its PR pros. If sources near the situation are right, recent employee demonstrations supporting the company - or more accurately, against the Justice Department - are totally spontaneous, conceived, and organized by the employees themselves, right down to the "I Am Andersen" buttons.

Those demonstrations have done more to turn the tide of public opinion in favor of the company than any formal pronouncements. The employees are to be applauded for seizing on the only message that could save the company from dissolution. Now Andersen's media supporters, most notably Lou Dobbs of CNN, have taken up the message - a breakup will hurt thousands of innocent parties.

It's a message that resonates and evokes sympathy. But it's wrong in terms of public policy - assuming you believe that discouraging corporate malfeasance is a legitimate policy objective.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, Dobbs argued that the innocents injured by the Justice Department lawsuit should be considered "collateral consequences,

echoing the "collateral damage

inflicted on innocent civilians during wartime.

Let's look at these innocent parties, starting with Enron shareholders.

Whenever regulators sue a corporation, corporate apologists point to "innocent

shareholders. That suggests a model of governance where owners are passive spectators, bearing no responsibility for actions taken in their name by those they pick to run the company.

Perhaps forcing them to do so would lead them to take more interest the next time they elect a new board director or vote on an activist's proposal.

What about Andersen's partners? While only a few participated in document shredding, all of them will be punished if the firm collapses. Is that so unfair? Only if partnership doesn't mean what the dictionary says it means: "A relationship between individuals or groups that is characterized by mutual cooperation and responsibility."

If you're a partner in a venture, you have a responsibility to ensure there are policies in place to prevent illegal activity. If you're not comfortable with ethics policies, for example, you either walk away from the partnership or you accept the consequences when illegal activity occurs. Otherwise, a partnership is simply opportunity without risk.

Ordinary employees are in a different situation, obviously. They are collateral casualties, just like the children of murderers and rapists are collateral casualties of society's decision to punish their parents - except no one ever suggests we should let murderers and rapists go free for their kids' sake.

Corporate crime is a serious societal problem because management is rarely held accountable for what is done in their name. Perhaps, in the wake of Andersen, they'll take a bit more responsibility.

Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management.

He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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