Yesterday I started reading Extraordinary Circumstances by Cynthia Cooper. This was provided to me by Andrew Wheeler who was formerly editing for SFBC and now is at John Wiley and Sons (and Andrew--more books please!) Okay. So I started reading the book yesterday and found myself rapidly absorbed. This is the story of how a company grew to huge proportions and then fell totally apart--partly because of the tech bubble bursting and partly because of financial shenanigans.
I ended up reading the whole damned book yesterday. Yeah, couldn't make myself go to bed and thusly the tiredness is probably what made me screw up on saving my chapter, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, the book was engrossing. I have a couple of complaints, but really, it was fascinating.
Cooper manages to humanize all the players in the action. They were people with families and with hopes and dreams and they didn't really mean any harm. In fact, they meant good. They just went about it the wrong way. Hindsight says that Worldcom was going to go bankrupt no matter what happened. But they were trying to prevent it, and willing to do whatever it took to do so. Including messing with the books. They thought they were protecting shareholders and people working in the company and themselves. Most were not particularly greedy. They didn't make tons of money of what they did.
The book unfolds over Cynthia's life after highschool and on up through various companies until she finally works at Worldcom full time as an Internal Auditor. There's a lot of resistance to what she does and she has to persevere through the old boys club way of doing business while trying to avoid getting shot for bringing the unhappy messages. She loves her job and most of the people she works with. She wants to do well. She wants to be promoted and recognized for her abilities. It's a long hard struggle and all the while Worldcom is growing exponentially. Bernie Ebbers, the CEO, is a daring, ambitious man who makes acquisition after acquisition and deal after deal, and suddenly Worldcom is huge. HUGE. Everyone wants a piece.
The tech bubble cracks. And then bursts. And the company cannot meet its numbers. So they shuffle things and lower guidance. A one time deal the conspirators promise themselves. But next time is the same, so they do it again. And again. A shell game of billions of dollars. All to fake to the public and the SEC that Worldcom is in no danger of going bankrupt. Except that it is already sliding over the edge and there's no stopping it. The tech bubble bursts and the stock is worthless.
In the middle of this, Cooper finds evidence of the fraud and pursues it. She does so not out of any crusading energy, but because it's her job, and she's passionate about her job and what she does, as is her team. Then it all breaks loose and now she's a whistleblower. I found it amazing how hated whistleblowers are in our society. Tattlers. Snitches. She's trying to save a lot of people a lot of harm, but she's blamed. Most whistleblowers are.
She finds herself subjected to scrutiny by the press (hounding), but her family and neighbors close ranks around her and try to protect her. In the end, she's one of the few who remain at Worldcon through the bankruptcy, leaving only after she feels she's completed what she started. Worldcom, by the way, became MCI and then part of Verizon.
What's excellent about the book is the storytelling and the character development and the minimal jargon in explaining the fraud. What I wanted more of was a more developed sense of those days when she was in fear before she could make her exposure, and after when it became clear that things were going to go very badly. I wanted more details. I also wanted more of the end. The book seems to end on a whimper, instead of a bang. But that, quite probably, is necessary. Because that is how Worldcom ended really. Dribbling away after the bankruptcy announcement. There's no real knowing the aftermath of all the jobs lost, of the impact on Mississippi where it was headquartered, on the people who lost so much money and so on. There's no way to measure it. And thus, it goes out with a whimper.
The book closes with Cooper's recommendations for people caught up in a situation--call it a list for holding onto your morality and character. She's made a living lecturing about what happened and also all her experiences with a variety of accounting situations. This is her lesson.
All in all, it was a very very good book. Cooper includes lengthy references to interviews and sources. I truly appreciate that in a world where memoirs are revealed to be fiction. I especially appreciate the source information given the fact that she does give quoted dialog throughout the book. Dialog that really is accurate.
One small thing niggled at me. The book is told in present tense as things happen. That's overall really well done. But occasionally, especially at the beginning of chapters or sections, she makes present tense references that were so totally off kilter from MY present that I was thrown and had to really think about it.
In a couple of days over at SFnovelists, I'll have a post about how this book feeds my writing and some of the reasons I'm interested in it. But one obvious one is that Crosspointe is so financially focused and this gave me excellent insights inside some corporate maneuverings and bureacracy and so on.
I recommend you pick it up and have a look at it if you get a chance. She's been on TV here and there and unfortunately I've not seen her, but I would very much like to.
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