Robert Wallace dilemma

Robert Wallace graduated from Indiana University in 2002 with a BA in history and certification to teach high school social studies. He went right to work as a teacher, but after a few years he found himself increasingly frustrated with his work from the standpoint both of professional fulfillment and financial reward. With his wife’s encouragement, he returned to school to seek an accounting degree. Karen Wallace is an RN, and she and Robert felt that her earnings as a nurse would suffice for themselves and their two children until he was ready to return to the workforce.


Robert finished his MBA in 2010, but his search for a position went slowly, partly because of the recession but also because, at age 35, he was a good deal older than those he was competing against. After a succession of part-time bookkeeping jobs, he finally landed a solid position with the accounting firm of Charles Caldwell and Company. He was assigned to the Caldwell office in Hamilton, Indiana (population 35,000). Besides Robert there is just one other accountant in the office: Jerry Bragg, who is a partner in the company and thus Robert’s boss.


Charles Caldwell and Company is a long-established firm, which is still run by its 74-year-old founder. It has traditionally been strong throughout Indiana but in recent years has faced tough competition from the big national accounting firms. Just last spring Mr. Caldwell summoned all of the partners to a meeting in which he reviewed the situation. His words were relayed down to Robert and all of the other employees. “The only way we can beat this competition,” said Mr. Caldwell, “is to provide more personalized and diligent service. This will be appreciated, especially in the smaller towns. Our survival depends on the local offices’ keeping their customers happy.”


All these events provide the background to the painful dilemma in which Robert Wallace now finds himself. Several months ago he conducted an audit of the local bank. Because this was his first major project, he was especially meticulous. Rather than just review randomly selected loan files, he went through all the bank’s loans in order to gauge any financial vulnerability. No serious problems were found. More recently, Robert audited a local tractor dealership. The dealership is owned by one Oliver Bigelow, who is also the president and chief shareholder in the bank. Mr. Bigelow, a lawyer, has an interest in several other businesses as well. By any reckoning he is the richest and most powerful man in town.


The audit of the tractor dealership is what disclosed the problem. In the files for Robert to examine, the manager inadvertently left the record of a sizable loan from the bank. This, as Robert immediately understood, presented three major problems. First, because business at the dealership was poor, the loan was likely to be in default quite soon. Next, and far more importantly, the circumstances of the loan were highly irregular. Mr. Bigelow was, in effect, loaning money to himself. The normal process by which any prospective loan would be evaluated could hardly occur, since Mr. Bigelow could see to it that the loan went through. Finally, there was the fact, seemingly connected with the preceding, that the record of the loan had been removed from the bank’s audit file. Robert had examined every loan in that file. He knew the tractor loan was not in there. He now wondered what other loans to businesses of Mr. Bigelow’s might have been concealed.

Robert brought this disturbing news to Jerry Bragg. His superior’s reaction shocked him. He was ordered to drop the matter. “I will take over the audit of the dealership,” said Bragg. “I will talk to Bigelow and see to it that the loan is taken care of. It has to be handled discreetly. We cannot afford to alienate Bigelow, or we will be out of business in this town.”

Robert protested that it is not an accountant’s job to “fix” things but rather to certify financial soundness or (as in this case) the lack of it. But Bragg cut him short: “I’m in charge of this office. It’s my responsibility, not yours. If you intend to keep working for this company, then you stay out of this matter, starting right now.”

Without saying anything more, Robert left Bragg’s office. He had no idea what he should do. He hated the thought of losing this job. Should he “blow the whistle”? If so, to whom? How far was he obliged to carry it?




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