Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Keynote speaker gives lessons on ethics, accountability

By Christopher Maher cjmaher@king-ranch.com

Cynthia Cooper

Business leaders in the Kingsville community received a lesson on ethics and accountability Thursday, taught by one of the individuals responsible for uncovering one of the largest corporate frauds in history.

Cynthia Cooper, of the CooperGroup, LLC, was the keynote speaker at the Third Annual Community Breakfast held at Ballroom A of the Student Union Building on the campus of Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

The breakfast was sponsored by the university's College of Business, the Kleberg Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Kingsville Chamber of Commerce and IBC Bank.

Cooper was an internal auditor with WorldCom, a Mississippi-based company that at one time was the nation's second-largest long-distance company and operated the largest Internet network. In 2002, Cooper and her team of accountants discovered $3.8 billion in fraudulent accounting at the company, which was later forced to claim bankruptcy. Eventually, more than $11 billion in fraud was uncovered, and the CEO was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. The company's chief financial officer and several other managers also entered guilty pleas to federal charges.

Cooper said Thursday that those involved in the fraud began with good intentions, trying to protect a struggling company and its 60,000 employees from going under.

"I want you to think about what decisions you might have made along the way, and how these events might have impacted not only you, but many other people," Cooper said. "I think they were pretty average citizens, probably not much different than many of us in this room."

Although they were not "bad people," Cooper said they ended up being defined by the improper actions they took when faced with ethical dilemmas.

"You don't have to be a bad person to end up committing a crime and ending up in prison," Cooper said. "Aren't we all faced with ethical decisions every day?"

As Cooper and her team began to uncover fraud and the company began to unravel, she and her team began to face adversity of their own. Cooper was labeled "whistleblower," and company leadership attempted to block her efforts, while federal investigators visited her office. As news of the company's problems caught the nation's attention, national media began to press Cooper, her family and friends for more information.

"I began to suffer from a great deal of depression, I lost a lot of weight and I can tell you I cried many a tear. There were long periods of time when I couldn't get out of bed to put one foot in front of the other," Cooper said. "Some of the things that helped me to weather this storm were my faith, my family – had a tremendous support system. I came to realize that really it came down to the power of choice  I could either let this ruin my life or I could find a way through it."

Cooper has since been named a Time Magazine Person of the Year and has written a book on her ordeal titled, "Extraordinary Circumstances."

"It's important for all of us to think about the decisions we make everyday," Cooper said. "Treat other people the way you want to be treated, and you're much more prone to make the right choices."

This page was last updated on: November 11, 2013