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Former Andersen chief dismayed by Big Four's attitude

Joe Berardino, the former chief executive of Arthur Andersen, is warning the rest of the accounting industry that it risks ruin unless it shakes itself out of a “dangerous complacency”.

Speaking before his peers for the first time since his firm was convicted of obstructing justice over the Enron debacle, Mr Berardino appeared remorseful. “I come before you in humility, humbled by the loss of my firm,” he told an industry gathering in Arizona.

But he had harsh words for the rest of the profession, especially the large players that, he believes, could easily find themselves in the mire. Since quitting the firm Mr Berardino has been on a fact-finding mission, meeting investors, chief executives and accountants in an attempt explain where the profession went wrong.

“This crisis did not rise up overnight and we cannot wish it away. The seeds were planted years ago,” he said. After meeting the heads of the remaining Big Four accountants, he became dismayed at their attitude. “They think it can't happen to them. Talk to me a year ago and I would have said the same thing,” he said.

Andersen was effectively put out of business when a Houston court ruled it had conspired with Enron to hide debts from investors and hindered an investigation into the energy trader's collapse.

Andersen, once the most powerful accounting firm in the world, had failed merger talks with rivals and quickly found itself being shunned by the rest of the profession. Mr Berardino, who won some sympathy for bravely appearing in front of congressional investigators to defend the firm, could still face questions about his own role in the Enron scandal.

He was unable to discuss Andersen's collapse for this reason but said he resigned as soon as the indictment was handed down to avoid suspicion that he would seek to protect himself by aiding the government prosecution.

“I met with the other firms and said 'I'm out'. I didn't want my partners to think I would be the first to strike a deal,” he told a conference organised by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

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