By now Cynthia Cooper’s story at WorldCom has assumed legendary status in our profession. Internal auditors even brought up her name during my recent travels in China, Hong Kong, and Japan. Almost everyone in our profession, it seems, believes that her steadfast pursuit of financial fraud at WorldCom almost eight years ago raised the stature of our profession and exemplified the best in what we aspire to be. After all, it is not every day that an internal auditor is named one of Time magazine’s “Persons of the Year.”
All of us would like to believe we would have the courage and fortitude to do what Cynthia and her team did at WorldCom. I never harbored any doubts that I, too, would have gone after the bad guys, no matter what the consequences. I never harbored any doubts, that is, until I recently read her book, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower. In the book, published last year, Cynthia takes a deep and candid look at the challenges she faced, the actions she took, and the consequences for not only herself, but those around her. It is a fascinating study of how our character is shaped, and how we react when faced with an unimaginable ethical dilemma. I believe it is “must reading” for any newly appointed or aspiring chief audit executive. Even though the circumstances in which Cynthia found herself are aptly titled — extraordinary — they are nonetheless circumstances in which any of us might one day find ourselves. It is always a good idea to ponder the “hazards of the trade.”
I first met Cynthia in 2002 when she journeyed down to The IIA’s headquarters at the invitation of then IIA President Bill Bishop. Cynthia spent the day sharing with us the high-level reflections of the recently exposed scandal and the challenges she and her staff had faced. She was still on the hook to provide testimony in ongoing criminal investigations, so she was unable to expose many of the details that came out later. Like many in our profession, I grew impatient as Cynthia wrote the book. I was anxious to know all of the juicy details as soon as her role became public. In retrospect, it was probably best that she took her time. What results is a thoughtful and reflective analysis of the challenges and dilemmas she confronted that only the benefit of time can provide.
Over the years, Cynthia and I have maintained occasional and cordial professional interaction. I have considered her a friend and always admired and respected her for the courage she demonstrated. After reading her book, however, I have a newfound respect for what she went through and how it has and will affect her life. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but ask, “How many of us have what it takes in extraordinary circumstances?”