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Briloff delivers lecture on corporate accountability

Abraham J. Briloff, seated next to University President Lois B. DeFleur, prepares to speak at the 20th Lecture of the Abraham J. Briloff Lecture Series on Accountability and Society.
Abraham J. Briloff, described as “an icon and one of a kind” by President Lois B. DeFleur in her opening remarks, gave the 20th annual Briloff Lecture on Accountability and Society last week.

Briloff, the Emanuel Saxe Distinguished Pro-fessor Emeritus, Bernard Baruch College, City University of New York, and Binghamton University Presidential Professor of Accounting and Ethics, spoke on “Corporate Accountability: A Place to Stand to Move the World.”

“Where to stand to move the world of corporate accountability?” Briloff asked. He would put the burden on each of us as individuals to hold those in power accountable. “For me, accountability is essential to the functioning of a democratic society, a critical precondition to effectiveness. A corporate enterprise is but one aspect of a democratic society and the citizenry — the shareholders — pass enormous power to persons with the responsibility to exercise that power. The only way citizens can secure their rights is by getting a full and equal measure of accountability.”

Briloff, who in 1931 dreamt of being the best bookkeeper possible, entered the Baruch School of Business in 1934 with loftier goals of becoming the perfect CPA. In 1935, he met Emanuel Saxe, who demonstrated to him that “accountancy is a discipline that subsumes within itself all disciplines that you can conceive of,” opening up much broader vistas for Briloff of what accountancy could be like.

Accounting is not just how books are maintained, Briloff said. “Professionals are assumed to have a special body of knowledge that a layman is not expected to comprehend, so laymen put their full faith in them and expect accountability and transparency.”

That doesn’t always happen, however, as Briloff referenced the downfall of corporate executives from Tyco, Enron and AIG and questioned where the auditors, lawyers, boards of directors and accountants were for those firms.

“Accountability is at the very heart, the very core of civilization,” he said. “This notion cannot to my mind be considered excessively or too frequently.”

So, if asked personally where to stand to move the world, Briloff said he would stand at the fulcrum, “somehow trying to balance between capabilities and resources in my possession, against where it is I want the world of account-ability to go. We have to try to see where we’re going or want to go, and what resources we have to get there.”

Briloff, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Binghamton in 1984, pep-pered his remarks with references to Greek philosophers and playwrights. He concluded by urging the audience to read the poetic ways in which Sophocles expressed themes in the story of Oedipus. “The trouble is right within the kingdom, not external,” he said. “There was accountability two and a half millennia ago.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08